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Art Evolution 1: Jeff Laubenstein

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010 | Posted by Scott Taylor

a2-slavers2I’m a gamer, a lifer, someone who at the age of thirty-nine doesn’t get to roll dice like it did at nineteen, but I still take a week’s vacation every year to hang out with High School friends and revisit campaigns where characters have been on paper long enough to legally drink in the U.S.

My love for fantasy role-playing goes back to middle school. There, I was introduced to Dungeon’s & Dragons, but it wasn’t just the concept that inspired my love affair, it was the art. The first piece of fantasy role-playing art I ever saw was the module A2: Secrets of the Slavers Stockade.

I stared at it for a full hour in History class; flipped through the pages trying to figure out why the cover wasn’t stapled on, and went home convinced this was something I had to get involved in.

Enter the Sears Christmas catalogue and TSR’s D&D Basic Edition red boxed set. Once I saw Larry Elmore’s red dragon and seemingly endless treasure trove, I convinced my mother to order it and began a journey lasting nearly thirty years.

I still buy gaming supplements for art alone, collecting entire genres and systems knowing full well I will never have the time to play them. If you put a great cover on it there’s a good chance I’ll buy, and I devour new talent almost as fast as I’ll snap up a collector’s piece from the seventies or eighties on eBay.

dnd_redbox2That’s who I am, not an altogether interesting fanboy, but one that hasn’t allowed the Peter Pan syndrome to fade.

Still, at some point in 2009 I struck on an idea that might solidify my love of fantasy art in a kind of crowning achievement to fandom. The following is the true story of my journey from ridiculous dream to unbelievable reality.

During that summer I started re-reading the novel series Thieves’ World, and inside that first book Robert Asprin provides an editor’s note concerning the books creation. To paraphrase the story, he was basically a struggling author at a convention in the late seventies and sat at a panel with several other unpublished writers discussing how cool it would be to get a bunch of famous writers together to create an incredible shared fantasy universe.

Long story short, Asprin went out and did it. Without really knowing how, he collected talent like Poul Anderson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.J. Cherryh, and dozens of others. A year later Thieves’ World was born with him at the head.

That wonderful little vignette put me on a similar thought. What if I could go out and collect ten of the greatest fantasy role-playing artists for a single shared project? If I got them, why not have the project egotistically revolve around one of my own characters? Sure, it seemed ludicrous, but like the Cylons, I had a plan.

thieves_world2I went to my basement, sold off fifteen long-boxes of comics I hadn’t touched in more than a decade and bankrolled a sample budget for my pet project.

Once my finances were in order, I sat down and created a list of all my favorite artists, those that had the biggest impact on my role-playing life. Yeah… there were a lot more than ten but I went with it.

As I put the list together I started to see a theme, a kind of catalog of time spanning thirty years. It began with the first color covers from TSR’s early Greyhawk module series and ended with Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG.

In all there were too many, but I forced a choice and came up with the names of nine men and one woman.

I took a breath and tried to imagine how this would work, what I would say, and how I would make contact with all the idols of my youth and beyond.

I considered the theme, dove deep into my extensive collection of role-playing characters and came up with a perfect fit for the project. A female wizard named Lyssa, who always wears white trimmed in gold and has raven-black hair. It was a simple enough description, just one line, and it gave the artists the power to create their own unique vision of her.

If they did Lyssa, I also decided they should create her in the genre that made them famous, like Larry Elmore doing Lyssa in the Dragonlance universe or Tony Diterlizzi in Planescape.

It helped to tell a story, follow the evolution of art, and from that seed I began building a portfolio concept I could sell to these artists.

earthdawn2Luckily for me, the year before I launched this grand scheme I drove five hours to Virginia and wrangled Jeff Laubenstein’s email from a director at Iron Crown Enterprises.

Jeff is hands down my favorite artist of all time, and I’d been working my way into an email relationship with him over the course of a year so I was confident I could get him onboard.

Jeff is an extremely personable guy, someone referred to in industry circles as an honest talent. He was the Art Director as FASA for almost a decade, and he’d seen the best and worst of what this industry can offer.

He cut his teeth on the Battletech universe, helped define character archtypes with his color work in Shadowrun, and launched Earthdawn as a testament to his vision of what a fantasy RPG should be. To me, he’d always been a great sounding board, and I was truly blessed to have him in my corner as I began.

One email exchange down and Jeff said he’d participate. He’d produce a Shadowrun ‘Iconic’ Lyssa, and the first of my dreams quickly became a reality.


Lyssa, by Jeff Laubenstein

Click image for larger version.

laubenstein-lyssa3In 1989 FASA’s Shadowrun was born, and with it, the genre of RP cyberpunk. This was a whole new world to explore and FASA turned to the up and coming talent of Jeff Laubenstein to bring it to market.

Jeff was a genius of crafting with watercolor. His early works in the mid eighties on Battletech helped enrich that war-torn universe, but it wasn’t until we saw his concepts of a darker future that we truly understood his brilliance. This was a new age for the industry, and they turned their backs on oil paintings for new mediums and artists ready to set the stage.

Laubenstein’s artwork bends to a kind of goblin-like mold and an almost surreal adoration of troll-kind. There is something innately unattractive in it, and yet when pressed to paper, it transforms into a creation that is altogether lovely. Jeff is the only artist I know that can make a wart look regal. In his landscapes, twisted trees and frumpy fellows become the norm, the resplendent, and the ultimate in achievement for the genre in question.

There is always a kinship driven deep in Laubenstein’s work, a sense of companionship and purpose. He brings levity and a kind of natural merriment to each character.

Inside his images there are stories ready to be told as though inviting you to tap a keg and join in. His figures appear with a twinkle in their eye and Laubenstein vests each with a quality of the unreal. He throws back the chalice of truism to build on a culture of unloved comic outsider. He turned our heads back to the fun of it all, but with the passing of the Era another turn in the road spelled the doom of many upstart companies and the artists that made them both viable and relevant…

To see Art Evolution 2 click here,

Current Status: Jeff is still working in the RPG field as a freelance artist as well as being an illustrator on two Young Adult books. He can be reached at bigbluetiki@earthlink.net. You can also check out his gallery and have a chat with him at his fan page on Facebook here

38 Comments »

  1. I love Jeff’s vision of Lyssa. No matter how long you look, there’s more to see.

    Great opening. Awesome article. I look forward to more installments.

    Comment by bogwitch64 - September 15, 2010 12:53 pm

  2. Jeff used his lovely daughter Lucy as the model for Lyssa. She posed for almost three months trying to get this right, and after he was done she requested the original for herself.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - September 15, 2010 1:04 pm

  3. Truly nice to see Laubenstein get some due, and some credit – I’ve long been an admirer of Jeff’s work from the time I first met him at the FASA offices in ’86 or ’87. See the guy’s art and you are immediately impressed. He is a true master of his craft. His work inspired me to work twice as hard. He’s one of those ridiculously talented artists that seems uncomfortable with praise heaped at him – So down to earth personable, with a sensitivity that finds a touchstone with everything he lays brush to. Jeff’s work is crazy unique, which is all-Jeff, a singular eye and a singular sense of humor. I’ve likened him before to visual autuers like Terry Gilliam, and Brian Froud. More people need to be exposed to Jeff’s work. They’d be as impressed as I still am. THANKS SCOTT!

    Comment by Tim Bradstreet - September 15, 2010 7:05 pm

  4. Thanks for commenting Tim, and I’m sure it would make Jeff blush to hear such kind words. Indeed, his humor is a key to his art, and I’ve always felt it made his work all the more approachable for those who saw it.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - September 15, 2010 8:40 pm

  5. Nice…

    I loved the old D&D stuff especially Dave Trampier’s work…shame he decided to fall off the grid.

    Comment by TW - September 16, 2010 6:05 am

  6. Wow, Dave Trampier… now there’s a name I haven’t heard for a while. Nice memory TW, and now you’ll have me thinking about Wormy all day… Hmmm, now where is my collection of old Dragon Magazines? :)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - September 16, 2010 10:52 am

  7. No need for the magazines:

    http://www.angelfire.com/wa2/haroog/archive/Archive.htm

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - September 16, 2010 8:54 pm

  8. Wow, now that’s a nice link. Thanks! I’m off to read.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - September 16, 2010 9:11 pm

  9. […] artists for a shared project to illustrate a single character in their best known style. For my first installment I chose Earthdawn and Shadowrun artist Jeff […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 2: Eric Vedder - September 22, 2010 4:14 pm

  10. […] the first installment of this series, I explained my plan to collect ten of the greatest fantasy role-playing artists for […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 3: Jeff Dee - September 29, 2010 12:07 am

  11. […] to illustrate a single character in their most recognizable style. So far, the list has included Jeff Laubenstein, Eric Vedder, and Jeff Dee, with this week adding again to that prestigious […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 4: David Deitrick - October 6, 2010 12:01 am

  12. […] to illustrate a single character in their most recognizable style. So far, the list has included Jeff Laubenstein, Eric Vedder, Jeff Dee, and David Deitrick with this week adding the first female name to our list […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 5: Cristina Dornaus McAllister - October 13, 2010 12:02 am

  13. […] Art Evolution continues, this week’s image coming from a member of the later days of TSR. The character is yet another in a shared project representing a single figure created in many famed RPG artists most recognizable style. The project began here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 6: Tony DiTerlizzi - October 19, 2010 6:11 pm

  14. […] artists were now represented in my Art Evolution project, beginning here, and the feelings of dread that I couldn’t get this accomplished were turning into the […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 7: Jeff Easley - October 27, 2010 12:02 am

  15. […] The Art Evolution project is now in full swing, with every era of RPG art — beginning in 1979 and ending in 2009 — represented in the previous articles here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 8: Wayne Reynolds - November 3, 2010 12:02 am

  16. […] of role-playing artist creating a single character spanning thirty years and genres begins here and continues with this week’s ninth […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 9: Jim Holloway - November 10, 2010 1:02 am

  17. […] catalogue great fantasy RPG artists over the past thirty years depicting a single character, began here, and the tenth master is detailed […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 10: Matthew D. Wilson - November 17, 2010 2:00 am

  18. […] Art Evolution, 1979-2009, continues as we journey back in time to the founding days of the RPG genre. For those of you who have missed what’s come before, you can catch-up here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 11: Jim Roslof - November 24, 2010 2:01 am

  19. […] take a moment and digress, but if you’re looking for the projects beginning you can find it here or you can click the following to see my ‘Groovy Lyssa‘ from last […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 12: Larry Elmore - December 1, 2010 1:17 am

  20. […] Art Evolution, the continuing study of a single iconic character as imagined by the greatest fantasy RPG artist in the past thirty years continues, but if you want to view previous artists, you can begin here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 13: Den Beauvais - December 8, 2010 1:15 am

  21. […] Evolution continues, from its roots here, to the incredible talent that created the newest vision in ‘Dragon Chess […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 14: Todd Lockwood - December 15, 2010 1:16 am

  22. […] Art Evolution, the project that shows the personal take on a single unifying character by the greatest artists in the RPG field continues, but if you’ve missed some, you can find the beginning here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 15: Liz Danforth - December 22, 2010 1:17 am

  23. […] Black Gate magazine (“Adventures in Fantasy Literature”) and he would be starting with my old friend Jeff Laubenstein. The other names he had already lined up awed me—Todd Lockwood, Larry Elmore, David Deitrick and […]

    Pingback by Starting with Why | Oakheart at LizDanforth.com - December 24, 2010 4:11 pm

  24. […] The scope of Art Evolution continues, but if you’ve missed any previous artists you can go back and find them here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 16: Brom - December 29, 2010 1:16 am

  25. […] Yep, it’s Art Evolution Wednesday here on Black Gate! If you’ve been absent on Wednesdays for the past three months you can find what has come before here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 17: Echo Chernik - January 5, 2011 1:16 am

  26. […] The evolution of fantasy art finds another player this week, but if you’ve missed any past artist you can restart the journey here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 18: Clyde Caldwell - January 12, 2011 1:29 am

  27. […] Art evolves, one generation of role-players leading into the next and each attaches it’s best memories to the artists that defined their games of choice. This ongoing series continues, but if you’ve missed previous entries they can be found here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 19: RK Post - January 19, 2011 2:15 am

  28. […] often been asked ‘how cool is it to have all that original art from the Art Evolution Project?’ or ‘What will you do with all that original art?’ I tend to smile when I hear it […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art of the Genre: Is Digital Art Real Art? - March 2, 2011 1:23 am

  29. […] והחוברות. סקוט הלך לחפש את האומנים מתקופות שונות ולגרום להם לצייר את אותה דמות. אומנות […]

    Pingback by קישורים לא ברורים | המשחקיה - March 3, 2011 11:35 am

  30. […] so with great writing, you need great art, and here is the kicker for me. I wrote Art Evolution for a reason, to showcase supreme artistic talent in the RPG field, but somewhere along the way my […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art of the Genre: Legend of the Five Rings - March 30, 2011 1:02 am

  31. […] nadal nie wiecie, ten interesujący artykuł (którego fragment cytowałem na początku) powinien rozwiać wszystkie […]

    Pingback by Earthdawn Art #6 - Earthdawn - Earthdawn Art - SETHARIUM - May 26, 2011 7:33 pm

  32. […] passion of all things visually marketed in oil, acrylic, water-color, and the like brought me to Art Evolution, and from that platform I’ve fostered many great relationships with […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art of the Genre: Art Road Trip - June 15, 2011 1:04 am

  33. […] indeed, there’s yet another addition to Art Evolution! Now you didn’t think I’d sit idly by after the success of my 2010 Art Evolution Project […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 2011: Russ Nicholson - June 22, 2011 1:09 am

  34. […] Art Evolution continues with the second entry into this exclusive club for 2011, but if you’ve missed any of the other contributors you can find them here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 2011: Janet Aulisio - July 27, 2011 1:13 am

  35. […] Art Evolution 2011 moves forward with the inclusion of a more modern artist, and I’m happy to report the second European talent of the year! […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 2011: Eva Widermann - August 24, 2011 12:42 am

  36. […] Gate L.A., and that means I get to see a good amount of really fantastic art, especially where Art Evolution is concerned. That being said, it’s not often I get introduced to talent on the magazine that I […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 2011: Chuck Lukacs - September 28, 2011 1:22 am

  37. […] Art Evolution turns twenty, and in so doing fades from this prestigious stage provided by Black Gate, but as the name contends, art is ever changing, and so I will never say never where the process and these articles are concerned. Still, if you’ve missed any of these wonderful works, the journey’s beginning can be found here. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution 20: Keith Parkinson [1958-2005] - November 22, 2011 2:44 pm

  38. […] hundred and twenty-five entries from all over the globe. What were they painting? Well, if this is Art Evolution, then of course they all took a stab at Lyssa, the now iconic female wizardress that has been […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art Evolution Callenge 2012: Anna Steinbauer - June 13, 2012 12:48 am


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