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With a career spanning over forty years, Russ Nicholson is best known for his black and white fantasy art; he did extensive work for the Fighting Fantasy series, perhaps most notably being the interior illustrator of the first book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, as well as producing work for the likes of Puffin, Hodder & Stoughton and Games Workshop.
In a previous interview, Nicholson said that when he began working professionally he had little choice on what jobs came his way; “Back in the early 70s, trying to get work without an agent was very difficult,” he told us. “But by using an agent, you took what you were offered. The work was meagre so I had to find a weekly paying job, this came in the form of an advertising sweatshop (so to speak) in London, with very little money. It was not the best of times.” So how do you stay motivated in a situation like that? “Well, as for my Fantasy work, when I attempted to show it around it was either ignored or, as one company Editor told me in no uncertain terms, it was just ‘too like Rackham and there’s no call for such work’. Wrong place, wrong time, as they say. To escape the infamous ‘three day week’ difficulties, and although still constantly sending drawings to small-press fanzines, I decided to put my skills to another use and, after post-graduate training, became an art teacher.” In fact, this is what Nicholson did for much of his career until he retired a few years ago.
When it comes to drawing, Russ Nicholson simply enjoys the ‘act of creating’ and has had a love for the art form since he was young. As he grew up, this love began to encompass everything visually creative, from comic books to fine art. “Sources were limited when I was a lad as this was pre-Internet,” he said. “In those days, I had to rely on the occasional opportunity of a visit to a museum or an art gallery, even the local library. But I have always loved any type of art, from cave art to modern abstract, and that love continues to this day.”
“I always loved to draw,” Nicholson continued when we spoke about why he pursued illustration professionally, “I admired cartoonists in the 1950’s and I really liked the idea of working for The Beano, so at 15 (which was the school leaving age then), I contacted them but was told by DC Thomson that they would only take artists who had a degree. So I got a degree. When I contacted the offices again in Dundee, they said they only trained their own. A real Catch 22! Amusingly, I did later become a comic artist on some of the girls’ comics and annuals, like Bunty and Tracy.”
With his illustration degree, Russ Nicholson headed to London where he found his agent; “Funds were limited and finding the best materials proved expensive. Illustrative work dried up as tastes changed and made work scarcer for those not already securely established. The final straw in London was that I was laid off from the commercial house I worked for. As I scrabbled around looking for paying work of any kind, I kept drawing. Fantasy work was always a driving force, so I began to submit work to the many small self-published Fanzines that proliferated in the 70’s. This led to being contacted by White Dwarf Magazine, and the rest is history…”
There’s a lot out there about Nicholson’s work for Fighting Fantasy, but it’s the artwork he produced for Games Workshop that we know him for. Given that they were a small company at the time, we wondered if the artists were given the time to work closely with stalwarts like Bryan Ansell and Rick Priestley.
“Oh, you do have the wrong idea,” he told us, somewhat to our amusement. “Maybe some illustrators at Games Workshop did do just as you wondered, but I worked alone, with only a limited brief to work from and only minor written communication giving technical details. As long as they liked the work that I did, I was sent more. There were two editors who were better to work with; one whose name I have sadly forgotten who gave me the opportunity to experiment creatively, and the other was the artist and editor, John Blanche. One thing I might also stress is that I never did sign any contract that I was sent, so the artwork is technically mine by copyright, unlike others who did sign.”
So where does that leave us with Priestley and Ansell?
“Rick Priestley I don’t specifically remember,” Nicholson admitted. “I know some of my early drawings of Dwarfs, for example, were recreated by Citadel Miniatures. He may or may not have briefed me in the early days but I have no correspondence to remind me of events from 30 odd years ago! Bryan Ansell and I only crossed paths when there was a disagreement in about 1990 over a huge battle scene which was originally commissioned by John [Blanche]. When Bryan Ansell phoned me at work, we had a long conversation about why I would not agree to the terms offered by his company - which I’ll explain later - and it ended with him ‘firing me’, that is, telling me I would never work for Games Workshop ever again; and technically I never did. I say technically because other companies, such as Hogshead Publishing, using a Games Workshop franchise called Fantasy Roleplay, later had me working on related themes.”
We imagined that Games Workshop would grant creative freedom to its artists because the fascinating worlds it creates are always so expansive and expressive. “Certainly,” Nicholson said, when asked to talk us through the process of creating art for them. “This was still pre-Internet so I was sent a letter to see if I was interested and when I agreed, I was sent a rough descriptive brief, sometimes long, but usually short, which described a scene, the type of characters to be involved, the artwork reproduction size, and the deadline which had to include time for posting… Generally, I had my work accepted. I only ever, as far as GW work was concerned, had to do one redraw and that was due to the elements I included being controversial. To balance the composition of a requested massacre of a human town, I had shown a dead human baby. I was told that you cannot show human babies, dead. It was OK for other races, like Orcs, but not human babies. So I changed that particular drawing…”
“As time progressed, there was a change in how we interacted,” he continued, thinking about the commissioning process. “I started to be sent relevant miniatures, uncoloured, to ensure I accurately matched the ‘look’ correctly, or if the scene somehow related to an earlier piece of mine or another artist I was also sent a PMT, which stands for Photo Mechanical Transfer, to ensure some continuity.”
The last piece of work he was producing for Games Workshop at the time was a painted colour double page spread, commissioned by John Blanche; “It showed Chaos Demons riding over a bed of skulls,” Nicholson said. “I never actually finished that piece because my previous large double page spread of a siege and battle scene, also commissioned by John, and based on the theme of a painting by Altdorfer called ‘The Battle of Issus’, was apparently about to cause a problem when it came to payment. I’d been asked that this particular picture would show a battle between two great armies, based on actual GW armies, and in the background to the left, a battle rages at sea, while behind a city is seen besieged with smoke rising from part of it.”
To do all that was required within the drawing meant that Nicholson had to create the art piece on a large scale, putting in, he felt, a lot more work than the £200 set fee that was offered; however, his like for working for Games Workshop outweighed this and so he was happy to do the work.
“When it was finished,” he said, “I sent it off and in reply I got a letter or phone call, time dims the memory of which, but it wasn’t from John, it was from another editor at GW telling me that they loved the picture but felt they couldn’t use the right hand ‘panel’ and therefore would reduce the fee to £100. I was happy to agree to that, but told them they could not use the right side for any reason since they weren’t going to pay for it. To cut a long, convoluted story short, the argument went something as follows… ‘No, we will keep the right side, just not pay for it’ …’Then you pay me the £200 originally offered’. The person I was talking to said no, they would only pay £100 for one side, which I refused. It was then passed up higher in the company who reiterated the £100 offer but informed me they’d retain the right to use both sides if they wished. Again, I said ‘Fine, then pay me the £200 for both sides as agreed’. This person refused but said he would raise it with his manager and again we had the same argument. I told them if they want to keep all of the picture, they should pay for all of the picture, that is both the left and right side whether it’s now used as a double page spread or not, and not just pay half the fee because you don’t ‘think’ you can use both sides. His reply was effectively we cannot do that and ended the call.”
Nicholson did not hear from anyone at Games Workshop for some time, and quietly got on with the large coloured Chaos piece. Purely by chance, when he was alone in the office one lunchtime, he received a phone call from Bryan Ansell, the managing director of Games Workshop. Their conversation, which was once again the same, came to an impasse; “He ended by saying no fee would be paid and I would never again work for Games Workshop. I asked for the return of the work, which he agreed to, and as remarked earlier, I never ‘officially’ did any further work for Games Workshop. They did return the artwork though, in fact several pieces of work. As for the drawing of the battle scene itself, a dedicated fan bought the piece many years later. I do hope he is still happy with it.”
Moving on, it was through Nicholson’s work for White Dwarf that led to Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston first contacting him, via Puffin Books, to illustrate the first in the Fighting Fantasy series, which was released in 1982. Earlier, he had produced playing cards and paper tokens for two Games Workshop games in 1980; playing cards for Warlock, a card game by Steve Jackson, and counter tokens for Doctor Who: The Game of Time & Space. Later, he also produced work for Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K Series such as Adeptus Titanicus in 1988, and Space Marine in 1989, and one of his first Fantasy story books was Konrad by David Ferring in 1990, although later editions of the same book do not contain any of his artwork.
Throughout his blog, Russ Nicholson recounts tales of work he’s created over the years. His expansive portfolio of work is the kind that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia and awe simultaneously. His black and white line-work has become something of a trademark within his work, but every now and then a flash of colour appears; “I suppose my black and white line-work has become something of a trademark but it was never a conscious decision to shy away from colour,” he said when we commented that the few colour pieces we’ve seen really stand out because they have a completely different feel to them. With the black and white pieces, we feel Nicholson is giving us the choice to colour the image ourselves in our own minds rather than being told what we should be seeing. We asked if there was some truth behind this sentiment. He went on to talk about several of the Christmas Annual stories he was given from DC Thomson, and once for IPC’S Misty annual back at the end of the 70s; “They were done in full colour, as were several jobs for others over the years. One even appeared in a White Dwarf Magazine story, and I was commissioned to do the colour art for Ian Livingstone’s ‘Goldhawk’ series. But I admit, it is for my black and white drawings that I’m known for most. Some have coloured my Fantasy work, but in truth, I dislike that sort of thing unless the image was done as a colouring book design. One compliment I was paid by an Editor back in the early 80s was that he felt my black and white work ‘was coloured’, because it gave the illusion in the mind of full colour.”
Nicholson’s work is full of whimsical anarchy; harsh lines are juxtaposed with empty spaces, whilst the deepest shades of black try to hide minute details. With much of his art, you can see the subtle influence that comic artistry has had. Each piece is marked with the power to transport you back to a time when everything was new and exciting, dangerous even. And while he doesn’t have a favourite piece of artwork, because, if he’s being honest, he’s rarely satisfied with any, what he does try to be is professional. “The piece of art I really like is the next one,” he added. “In my mind’s eye, I plan and prepare my composition, but rarely does the finished result match what I created in my mind. The same is true of fans of my work though, as each brings their own likes and dislikes to any work I create."
Knowing everything that he does now, after a long career illustrating, we asked what advice he would give to his younger self. “Laugh,” he said, “Now that is simple! Don’t take up teaching if illustrating, or any kind of art, is really what you want to do. In fact, although I enjoyed it, don’t go to Art College. I found after four weeks of working in an advertising sweatshop in London, that I had learnt more about the business of commercial art than in my four years at college.” As a side note he offered that, since students today can run up hefty fees, better advice would be to learn Photoshop or Illustrator, or any similar creative programme skills instead.
We parted with our own offering that Nicholson’s work is truly a firm favourite in the hearts of many gamers. From the early days of being ignored and, at times, unappreciated, to now a renowned artist in his own right, he replied, “That is most gladdening and gratifying to hear, thank you.” For us, his work is archetypal. “I do try to respond where I can to any fan who shows a liking for my work,” he added. “It’s that which helps keep me fresh, or as fresh as I can be as I get older! As I used to say to my students: read, see, and explore. Expand and experiment with your work when you are young because that is when you are at your most fertile, for as we age, it’s experience that we use more and more. So to read, and know, that my work is now very much appreciated within the gaming community is a real pleasure to hear. Thank you all, and thank you for wanting to do this interview…”
You can follow the art and musings of Russ Nicholson via his blog here
All artwork is copyright of Russ Nicholson