September 18, 2013

The dragon maker

Fantasy illustrator Larry Elmore may be the best-known artist you’ve never heard of

More than 2,500 Facebook fans, 2,097 backers on Kickstarter, hundreds of thousands of dollars in painting commissions each year and fans from Frankfort to France: Larry Elmore may just be the best-known artist you’ve never heard of.

The Kentucky native is consistently hailed as one of the pioneers of fantasy art, an often-overlooked genre that ranges from comics and gaming materials to large-scale paintings and prints. Rising to prominence in the United States in the 1960s, primarily through book covers and role-playing games (RPGs), fantasy art combines vibrant imagination with classical illustration, giving way to what Elmore describes as “an infinite range of artistic possibilities.”

Growing up in Grayson County, Ky., Elmore always knew he wanted to be an artist. He describes his childhood as fairly typical for a rural area — revolving around “girls, cars, guns, motorcycles, more girls” — but while his friends were out hunting and fishing, Elmore preferred sitting with his sketchbook. “I’d rather draw than anything,” he says. “It was the one thing I was really good at and really enjoyed, almost like a calling.”

Elmore was 12 when he first encountered the genre that would become his career. While helping his father at a local clothing store, Elmore stumbled upon an oil painting, hung in a back hallway, of a Viking longship. “I just sort of locked up when I saw it,” he recalls. “I was blown away. The sun was shining on the sail, and there was a dragon head on the prow of the boat and all these shields. I was hooked.” His senior year of high school, Elmore’s parents bought him an oil painting set and an art book on Western scenes, and, as he puts it, “I was off.”

Elmore got his first taste of arts education at Western Kentucky University, where he studied fine art. He dove seriously into study, both of artistic technique and ancient history. “I didn’t know what a Viking looked like or what they wore,” he says. “When I got to college, I got access to a good library, and I started going there to do research. There was something pulling me in that direction, something long, long ago, some culture, but I didn’t know what it was. One day I saw a map labeled ‘Battle Axe Culture,’ and I thought, ‘Well, that’s who I’m looking for.’ And then when I found the Celts, it felt like I found home.”

It was also during his years at WKU that Elmore discovered fantasy book covers, works by Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo that he lists among his main artistic influences. “I’d save my money and buy one fantasy book cover every one or two months,” Elmore explains. “Back then it was $2.50 or $3 for a book, but I would have to sacrifice cigarette money or anything else to buy me a book. I’d look at the cover for months before I ever decided to read them. I was fascinated with that art.”

His penchant for fantasy and illustration drew scorn from his peers, most of whom were preoccupied with the abstract expressionist and non-representational movements of the 1960s. “I wasn’t interested in painting soup cans or throwing paint on a canvas,” Elmore recalls. “I studied modern art, and I could argue with my teachers about it, but I just didn’t see it.

“It was turning into more of a philosophy than an art. You’d have white canvases, just a primered canvas sanded down, and that was their statement, that was the art. Nothing. And I was like, ‘I don’t want to do nothing! I wanted to paint something!’ I was a natural-born illustrator, I guess. So when those early fantasy pieces came along, I knew that was what I wanted to do. Because you could paint anything! Past, present, future — I could mix up anything I wanted and paint it and call it fantasy.”

As a senior, Elmore was offered a fellowship to pursue a master’s degree at the Pratt Institute in New York, but two weeks after graduation he was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Germany. When he returned to the United States two years later, he got a job as an illustrator at Fort Knox, doing drawings for military manuals and training aids. Still, he maintained an interest in fantasy art.

“Many of the artists I admired were my age,” he says. “But they hadn’t gone to school. They were getting published at 18, 19 years old. I worked at Fort Knox for eight years trying to get good enough, I felt, to get published. And since I’m my own worst critic, I probably never would have been published if some friends of mine hadn’t sent out samples of my work.”

In the ’70s, Elmore started getting published in magazines such as National Lampoon and Heavy Metal, moving from small pieces and “just silly stuff” to cover artwork, including Heavy Metal’s first anniversary issue. His rich illustrations and attention to detail garnered the attention of TSR, an emerging gaming company that had just launched a new RPG: “Dungeons and Dragons.”

“I’d heard of the game but never played it,” says Elmore. “A friend of mine showed me the manual, and the art was just so bad! It was awful. I thought, ‘I could do better than that.’”

The president of TSR flew down to Louisville to offer Elmore a position as an illustrator, but he was reluctant to accept. “I had just gone from GS7 to GS9, they had geared me up to be head of illustrations at Fort Knox, I was winning awards — I had a whole career set up, with all the benefits,” he explains. But when the president offered to double both Elmore and his wife’s salaries, buy their house and assist with the move, Elmore says, “I almost fell out of my chair. I said to him, ‘Holy cow, I guess you just bought an artist!’”

Elmore and his family relocated to Wisconsin in 1981, and he started working for TSR, revolutionizing their gaming art, proving instrumental to the “Dungeons and Dragons” recognizable image and international success. Elmore describes the job as the best opportunity of his life, giving him worldwide exposure and developing a fan base that today spans continents and generations.

“It was the best move I ever made. I worked with TSR really through their heyday. Almost every kid who was intellectual at all was playing the game, and those same kids today, some of them grew up to make a lot of money, and they’re buying original art now. I’ve got a fan base that goes from 70 years old all the way down to 14. And with fantasy, the fans are really, really strong. They remember your name; they follow your career. And that was a really good thing.”

Elmore’s success with TSR and his subsequent career as a freelance illustrator put him in a rare position for an artist, enabling him to work from home, often booking up months in advance with huge commissions, as well as equipping him with a huge support base for independent projects.

Last November, Elmore launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of producing the first hardcover, comprehensive anthology of his work as an illustrator and painter over the past 40 years. Within the first 12 hours, the project had reached its goal of $17,500, and to date, the page has more than 2,000 backers, pledging a total of $299,914, with some donations upwards of $10,000. The 45-day fundraising period brought in an astonishing 17 times Elmore’s original goal, and at the time it closed it was the second most successful campaign in the publishing category in the website’s history.

“It was unbelievable,” says Elmore. “I was just worried about not meeting our goal. I didn’t want to be the first person on Kickstarter to lose money. I believe the record for most-backed book is a little over $300,000, and if you take into account all the people who called me up and wanted to pay me on the side, and all the work I’ve gotten as a result of the page, I’ve well-exceeded that.”

While the book was originally scheduled to start shipping in August, that date proved impossible for Elmore given the attention he got from the campaign. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing for a month; my email is flooded,” he said ruefully when LEO spoke to him back in January. “It’s hard to get work done.” Still, it’s a problem he’s grateful to have. “A lot of illustrators hustle so much, supporting a family and kids, that by the time they get to 50, they’re pretty much fried. And here I am: I’m 64, and I’m booked until 2014, all on my own work. Only about 2 percent of artists can say they’ve been that successful.”

 

Eight months later, “The Complete Elmore,” a hardcover anthology of vivid color prints, paintings and illustrations, is at the printers and will begin shipping worldwide in mid-October. Elmore describes the book as “a Herculean task” that took more than 15,000 hours to complete. However, he’s so pleased with how the final product has turned out that he is launching a second Kickstarter next month, this time for a black-and-white anthology that will span his extensive freelance career.

The book will include hundreds of sketches and line drawings, and a limited number will be available as a box set with the color book. This is particularly good news for fans who are just now hearing of the project, since nearly every copy in the color anthology’s 5,000 run has already been spoken for.

Elmore describes himself as incredibly humbled by the extent of the project’s success. “My fans have been great to me,” he says. “I would have never thought that a rural boy growing up in the hills of Kentucky could ever live a dream life like this. I hope the good lord allows me to paint another 20 years for my fans.”

In addition to his own personal sense of good fortune, Elmore hopes this groundswell of support is an indication of wider acceptance to come for fantasy art in general, bringing the fringe genre the recognition he feels it deserves from the fine art world.

“In the last 40 years, most of the better artists have gone into fantasy because there’s so much creative freedom and they can make a living and still paint. But because it has commercialism attached to it, it gets written off as commercial junk and not ‘serious art,’” Elmore says. However, he remains optimistic about the genre’s future.

“I remember my first year of college, my first art class ever, the instructor asked the whole class who our favorite artist was. And all the other kids were from New York or New Jersey, and they all named artists I’d never heard of. They came to me and I said, ‘Norman Rockwell. He’s a great painter.’ And the class nearly laughed me out. The teacher said he was just a cheap commercial illustrator, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. But you look at Rockwell today: His work is highly collected, he’s been accepted in the art world, and he will go down in history as one of the great illustrators and great American artists. So you see, things change. When enough people like something, things slowly change. And I think one day fantasy art will be considered a valid art form in the fine arts world.”

Even if recognition never comes, Elmore has few complaints about his life. When years as a freelancer hustling contract work culminated with a stroke and three subsequent heart attacks, “I had to do some soul-searching,” he admits. “I was 60 and totally fried. The rat race I’d been living, the all-nighters, the deadlines control your life. At that pace, it would kill a person.”

Elmore shifted from freelance commissions, where the client dictates the content, to self-directed work, where he sends proposals to collectors or prospective buyers for pieces he wants to do. Now, his calendar for the next year is jam-packed with projects, all of his own choosing, and the artist, who now resides in Leitchfield, still makes time to spend with his wife and to ride his beloved motorcycles through the foothills of Kentucky.

“I’m 64 but I feel like I’m 35,” he says. “I do what I love, and I’ll keep doing it until I physically can’t anymore. I know some people my age that are retired and waiting to die, and they’re old, they look old, they act older. And it’s like, ‘Well, what are you living for?’ The journey is where the fun’s at, and if I die broke, I don’t care, as long as the day before I had enough money to go out and have a good time.”