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Copyright Wizards of the Coast

[“As Darkness Rises,” by Noah Bradley, © Wizards of the Coast]

Will here. A couple of weeks ago, I had a short article published in Dungeon Magazine #189 part of D&D Insider—my first official piece for Dungeons & Dragons, like, ever. (You need a subscription to D&D Insider to get access to Dungeon content.) The article, “Diyun: The Hanging City,” gives a quick description of a setting where my players spent many weeks adventuring back around the turn of the century. It’s a place that’s stuck in my imagination over the years, to the point that I know how it smells, how sounds, and, I thought, how it looks.

I had, quite frankly, built up my expectations for the imagery that might accompany the piece. This being a work for Wizards of the Coast, I knew it would be handsome art, but how would it compare to the Diyun in my head? I found out the same way you did, by logging in to D&D Insider and seeing the piece posted for public consumption.

Wizards of the Coast hired an artist named Noah Bradley to illustrate my article. We’ve never met. We never collaborated directly. Somehow, though, the Wizards of the Coast art director and Noah got inside my head and painted a vision of Diyun that is so close to what I’ve always imagined that… it’s eerie. More than that, it’s better than what I’d imagined because it’s in the real world now where you and I can both see it.

I immediately had to know more about how Noah Bradley works, so I dropped him a line. He was nice enough to answer a few questions for us here at Gameplaywright. Read on.

Gameplaywright: You’re a concept artist specializing in environmental concepts and illustrations. Why environments? How did you come to specialize in painting places, particularly imaginary places?

Noah Bradley: It might be a bit hard to believe, but up until a couple years ago I hated environments. I thought they were painfully boring. The irony of this isn’t lost on me.

I’m extremely fortunate to have grown up in central Virginia—a place with ample natural beauty. One day I took my paints and some paper outside to do some painting. I loved it. I was outside in nature throwing paint around (and fighting off bugs with my brush). For the rest of that summer I did tons of painting outside, while at the same time starting to experiment with my own imagined environments in Photoshop.

It didn’t take long for people to start saying how my quick environment sketches were better than the character pieces I labored over for innumerable hours. I was a bit shocked, but I started pushing the environments even more. Before too long I got to a professional level with the environments and started getting some paid work. Now environments are just about the only thing people hire me to do! Thankfully I love them.

GPW: Would you describe your sketching process in general for me? How do you select a point-of-view or palette for a piece? How do you go about finding the texture and character of a place that doesn’t exist?

NB: I start by reading. I read over the art brief again and again. Usually the art director has put some time into writing up the description, so I try to pull as much information I can from what they give me. Then I crack open my sketchbook. I begin with a series of small thumbnails to work out the general composition. When I’m doing these, even though they’re incredibly small, I’m thinking about the feel of the place. I’m considering the time of day that will best bring out the forms and architecture I’m playing with. Once I start on the full-color sketches (that will eventually be sent to the client) I get even more specific. A lot of it, I’ll admit, is just intuition. I play around in there until I see something that I like. Some artists might be able to methodically arrive at a finished piece, but I love the happy accidents that happen along the way.

GPW: Your piece, “As Darkness Rises,” is really brilliant. It’s a setting that I’ve been carrying around for years, after I cooked it up for a home D&D campaign back when, and it’s really a delight to see it brought to life. It’s very much how I imagined it, with the added power of very dramatic color and light. Every sketch you posted for the piece on your website has this wonderfully dramatic energy to it. How do you find the dynamism in a place? How do instill drama in — or evoke it from — an environment?

NB: I loved creating that piece. Right from the get-go everything went smoothly. That doesn’t always happen, but I can usually push through the bad moments and come out the other side with a fairly good piece no matter what. As far as how to get drama in my piece… I’m not exactly sure. Nice lighting is definitely one of my specialties, so you would think that I’d have it all figured out. But I guess my main secret is just paying attention to the lighting. I see a lot of artists with serious artistic skill who just get lazy on the lighting. Too much flat, uninspired lighting kills their work. I think if folks just thought about lighting for a bit then it would improve for them.

But then, I’d have more competition is the pretty-lighting field. Shame.

GPW: Jeff and I at Gameplaywright are both freelancers, and we’re always curious how other freelancers work. What can you tell us about the process of sketching for an art director? What’s the ideal art-director-to-artist dynamic like for you?

NB: Freelancing is a wild ride, I can say that much. I’m nearing the end of my first year of freelancing, so I’m still relatively new to it. But I’ve had my ups and downs already. The hardest thing can be the ebb and flow of work. It seems that either I’m drowning in an impossible work load, or I don’t have anything to do. Sometimes I wish things were more consistent, but at the same time I love the excitement of getting a new potential job in my inbox. It’s sort of like opening a present, just with more contracts and work involved.

Art directors can also be a bit of a surprise. Some are entirely hands-off, while others like to nitpick every little detail. But I’ve been extremely fortunate in the people I’ve worked with. With only one or two exceptions (who shall remain unnamed), I’ve been blessed with art directors who have been nothing short of a pleasure to work for.

GPW: Who are some artists — current or classic — that you follow or admire right now? Is there anyone that’s influenced you that we might not expect?

NB: Most folks seem pretty surprised when they find out that I really like Mark Rothko. I guess landscape painters ain’t supposed to enjoy minimalist color field paintings. But I think they have tremendous weight and presence to them (if only in person). Some of the dead artists that I love: George Inness, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Whistler, Sargent, Rembrandt, John White Alexander, Howard Pyle, etc. And of course there are some phenomenal living artists that blow me away: Nathan Fowkes, David Kassan, Michael Whelan, Donato Giancola, etc. I could list artists better than myself all day long, so I’ll stop now.

GPW: What’s next for you?

NB: Back to work, of course! I’m currently trying to see if there are any full-time positions that might be a good fit for me, and also building my freelance career. I’ve got some other plans, but those are staying secret for now.