“Ars longa , Vita brevis”
I love the art of illustration. I’m a sucker for good ‘pulp’ art. Science fiction illustrations filled my childhood dreams. My homework pages were covered in rocket ship doodles. But when it comes to drawing the human figure, I’m a complete failure. For all my appreciation for the art of storytelling that is ‘illustration’ – my ability to handle a pen or paint brush is nonexistent. That’s probably why I turned to capturing images with the camera , and more lately, with the printed word.
My direct association with the art, goes back to the mid eighties, while working at the Renaissance Festival in Chicago. (King Richard’s – now Bristol). In 1987 I was approached by a group of artists from nearby Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They worked for a company called “TSR” – and they did the artwork for books and ‘game modules’ for something called “Dungeons and Dragons”. Had I heard of it? No, never. Apparently, they were very excited to see people in armor, on horseback in real life. While it’s possible to dress up and pose for action sequences in the studio – getting a real live horse to perform an action to use as reference in a painting – isn’t something your everyday artist has access to.
“Could we hire you guys, to dress up and pose for us during the week?”
“Sure – it’s going to cost you though.”
I picked a number I assumed they would turn down, and we’d bargain from there.
“Great! Can we shoot this week?”
I got to meet the gang from TSR . Pictured below as they line up to shoot us in the tiltyard, L-R Dave “Diesel” LaForce, Keith Parkinson, Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell, and Jeff Butler. They collectively referred to themselves as “Art Dogs”.
They arrived on our day off , packing camcorders, cameras and sketch pads. We opened the costume tent – and spent the entire day fulfilling their every imagined composition. “I’m working on a painting, where a guy in armor is laying down, and a horse is about to jump him… can we do that?”
“How about all of you riding toward us, in a line?”
“Can you guys mix it up, like a melee’ using swords, axes, flails?”
Later, we went to Lake Geneva and visited their studio where I got to see first hand, the incredible art these guys were capable of.
Stephen Ommerle, poses on Gayrak.
Charlemagne’s Champion – © Keith Parkinson
Over the years, I have seen numerous book covers and game module covers that featured us – Both on and off horseback. The character’s faces are often different from our own, or we might be transposed into orcs, trolls, demons or skeletons – but it’s always possible to recognize a specific pose, a fovorite horse, a costume or armor piece that I know belonged to us. It was only later, when my son Travis grew old enough to play the games, and collect the books and puzzles, that I saw just how often our images appeared in them. Keith insists this painting below is based on a photo of me. I recognize my horse Deerborne, but I think I’m better looking than this guy.
Scheduling took me away from performing at the Chicago faire, and I lost touch with ‘the guys’ who had opened their own booth selling original art and prints. It was some years later, while performing at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival in Mt. Hope, that I heard a familiar voice call out. “Ric! Hey, it’s Keith!” Much to my surprise, there was Keith Parkinson in the audience. After the show, he came backstage and I found out that he and his family had relocated to Lititz, less than ten miles from the faire. Over the run of the show we got to hang out together. My young son Travis met his boys, and they played together with the props from his art studio. I spent much needed time relaxing in his studio above his garage, on “Knightsbridge” – where he would play drums, and we would drink beer. Lots of beer.
“The Return of Lancelot” – Members of the PARF posed for the painting © Keith Parkinson
During the third year of our Mt.Hope show, he asked me to pose for a book cover he was working on for David Eddings. It was part of something called “The Tamuli”. Later he came out to the fair where he gathered up a whole cast of characters to pose for a painting called “The Return of Lancelot”. This was a piece commissioned specifically for a patron. We had more fun mixing and matching costumes with different characters, and working with other actors at the festival to portray the figures in the painting. Keith later said he had the most fun painting the chickens.
It was during that year in PA that Keith read my first manuscript – a swashbuckling novel – and told me that THIS was what I should be doing with my life, not jousting. He even offered to hand the manuscript directly to his publishing contacts. Something virtually impossible to do without an agent. When one of them said, “Sure, I’ll read it – but you have to do a mock-up cover for it first” – he didn’t hesitate to do just that. He sketched out a terrific moment from my novel (later screenplay) “Pryour Justice: A case of Rapiers” When I asked if I could keep the drawing, he seemed surprised. “You want it? Sure!” he inscribed it “Ric, be bold not old, until the book is sold – Keith” That drawing hangs next to my two original Hildenbrandt sketches now.
With Keith’s encouragement, I dedicated myself to writing during my first ‘retirement’ from the festival world. By that time, I had found my strength in screenwriting. One day Keith called me to say he was planning a ‘castle tour’ of the UK, would I like to go with him? It just so happened, that I was in discussion with a production company about scouting film locations for a new Ivanhoe Film. The timing worked out – and Keith and I spent three glorious weeks climbing castle ramparts and chasing imaginary orcs through dark dungeons. We called it our “Castles and Dragon’s tour”.
We also drank beer. A lot of beer.
One of my fondest memories of that trip, was strolling through the British Museum and getting lectures and art tips from Keith as he examined the great master works. It was during this time, that I turned to him and asked, “So… what is ‘art’? And what is ‘illustration’?”
He thought for a moment, then replied. “If it tells a story, and you put it on a cover, or in a book –it’s illustration. If you hang it on a wall, it’s ‘art’.” Then he smiled and added, “If you have to EXPLAIN it… it’s FINE ART.” This of course, does not rule out the fact that a piece can be all three at once.
Sometime after that trip, I discovered the delights of “EBAY”. I spent quite a bit of time looking for swords. But I also stumbled upon a section called ‘art and illustration’. Lo and behold, there was a small painting by Keith Parkinson offered for sale. It was ‘unsigned’ – but the seller assured everyone that he had gotten it directly from TSR, and it was the real deal. There were only a few minutes left to the auction. I knew that if I bought it, I could send it to Keith, and he would sign it for me. This would of course, increase the value of the small piece of work. I placed my bid, and watched breathlessly as it went through. After a few minutes my high bid won out – and I was the proud owner of my first Keith Parkinson original painting. Thrilled, I sent a link and email to Keith, asking him two questions. Did I pay too much for this small acrylic, and would he sign it for me if I sent it to him? Keith was quick to respond.
“Well Ric, art is worth what you pay for it. If you feel like it’s worth what you spent, then you got what you paid for. I’ll be happy to sign it. – But I didn’t paint it.”
WHAT!!!!! OH MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE! I had just spent a nice piece of change, on a picture that was painted by someone I didn’t know. I was too clever by half, thinking I was going one up on the seller. Damn my foolish fevered fingers. I wallowed in my guilt and buyer’s remorse for a solid ten minutes. Then I got a second email from Keith.
“Yoink. – I painted it. It’s a preliminary rough for a much larger piece. Send it along, and I’ll sign it and return it.” That’s the kind of guy he was. And it wasn’t the first practical joke we pulled on each other.
The 8×8 acrylic painting arrived at my house, I quickly repackaged it, and sent it off to Lititz for Keith to sign. I included a note advising that he should take extra special care of it, since I was planning on using this instead of buying stock – as a way of investing for my future retirement. I also told him that I was sparing no expense, and reserving a prominent spot on my refrigerator for its display. Since he didn’t ask for any kind of compensation, I included a check for one of his signed and numbered prints – “The King’s Gold” This was a piece I knew we had posed for back in the day. I had seen the original in his studio in Lititz. It was the least I could do – what with him being so generous with his time.
Several weeks went by, and I hadn’t heard from Keith. I was beginning to worry that perhaps the original art had been lost in shipment. A quick email to check – had he received it?
“Yup, got it alright. Been really jammed up on some deadlines for some book covers. Sorry. I noticed there were some chips in it, and I wanted to touch it up for you. I’ll get it out in a week.”
Damn, what a heck of a nice guy. After another week, I got a notice that there was a package at the post office, too large to be placed in my box. Well great, this must be it then. I went to the post office, and handed them the slip. They handed over a VERY LARGE BOX – more than 28 by 28 inches in size. How could this be? Oh, I know. He probably matted and framed that signed print I asked for, and placed it in the box as well. Gosh, that was really nice of him. He didn’t have to do that. He could have shipped it rolled in a tube or something.
I took the package home, and prepared to cut the packing tape. It was then that I noticed that the package had been insured.
For several thousand dollars.
There must be some mistake.
I carefully cut the top flap loose, and looked inside. I could see the edge of a very large piece of art, carefully suspended within foam packing corners. Slowly, I pulled the artwork out of the box, and was rewarded with the following image.
The original cover art for David Edding’s book “The Hidden City”. The memories came rushing back –
In 1993 – he had invited me out to his house in Lititz, to pose for this cover. I brought along a selection of costume pieces, armor and weapons for him to choose from.
“I want you to wear your blue jeans,” he said.
“Because I like the way they fold and drape. I’ll paint them as leather but they really work better in the sunlight.”
I donned my hauberk, a short black and yellow surcoat, pulled on my riding boots and buckled on a bastard sword. We left his studio above his garage, and went down into his backyard. He had me climb on top of a picnic table, and handed me a glass paperweight.
“It’s an enchanted jewel. You’re standing on a castle parapet about to throw it into the mouth of this monster looming above you. Now, pose …. like this. No… more weight here, pull your hand back, crouch down…. Hold this arm out, turn your head, a little more. Now hold still while I shoot the reference pics.”
It was a fairly awkward pose. Not very natural. At least, not one to be holding for an extended period. I could see striking this pose in action – in the process of heaving the jewel. But holding still was getting tiresome.
And the jewel in my hand was getting hot.
“Hey Keith, this jewel is getting hot…”
“Yeah, yeah… it’s charged with magic. The monster wants it…”
“No, I mean – it’s GETTING HOT!”
“Yeah, yeah – you’re about to throw it….”
“IT’S BURNING MY HAND!” – I tossed the crystal onto the grass in front of me.
“What are you doing?”
I held up my palm to show him the blister. “It was focusing the sun onto my palm and BURNING MY HAND!”
“Wow, that’s fantastic!” He retrieved it, held it for a moment, then dropped it. “Sure enough! That’s magic!” We finished the shoot, went upstairs and drank some beer.
Okay, a lot of beer.
And now, years later – I was looking at the original artwork for this book cover. Keith normally retained ownership in his original art. Occasionally, he would sell them to the writers. But here he had gifted me with the original oil painting. When I turned the painting around, I saw a note taped to the back.
“Hey Ric, I felt your investment portfolio was a little anemic and just couldn’t stand it. Actually, I planned on sending this one to you since you asked about it last year, just never got around to it. Typical artist – A word of caution, refrigerator magnets won’t work on masonite. Take care, Keith.”
Of course, the small 8×8 painting was also in the box, now sporting his bright blue signature. The signed and numbered print of “Kings Gold” arrived a few days later, rolled in a shipping tube. It too was inscribed with the trademark Parkinson humor – “Ric – when it absolutely positively has to be there overnite” – All of them now have pride of place in my collection of fantasy art.
A couple of years later, when Keith published his first book of art “Knightsbridge: The Art of Keith Parkinson” he sent me a copy. Inscribed on the inside fly – “Ric, I have never counted how many of these you helped with… Math is not a friend. Anyway, thanks – Take care, Keith”.
I kept in touch with Keith over the years, through tumultuous times for both of us. I moved out to California, while he moved out to Tuscon. I was thrilled to hear him talk about his writing projects, and happy to read bits and pieces of them. We discussed story structure and mythology at length. When I was passing through Tuscon on business – he was kind enough to offer me a place to stay in his new home. He also helped me copy and beat a deadline for a script request, loaning me the use of his fax machine, and offering special shipping arrangements. He was always, ALWAYS – generous with his time and praise.
Everquest cover art by Keith Parkinson. Game by Sony Online
I watched him move from the world of table top gaming, to online gaming with the artwork and game design for Everquest. I was devastated to hear he had been diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. (AML) He kept all of his friends updated with his struggle, always upbeat, always with a sense of humor.
Keith passed away on October 26, 2005. He was 47 years old. Far too young. The fantasy world lost an incredibly talented and creative artist – and I lost a good friend. I think of him often when I see his work, or walk in the fairy tale forest of Muir Woods.
“Art is long, Life is short”
My most recent flash fiction piece “The Master’s Fee” was beautifully illustrated by the talented MairinTaj Caya. And just as the piece before, “Canon Horse and Pike” was illustrated by artist Douglas Brown , my next short piece will also be illustrated by an independent artist. If you’re an artist – especially interested in the ‘rockets and raygun’ aspect of hard sci fi artwork – drop me a line and we’ll discuss my next project. Yes, I pay – no it’s not much. But I don’t think anyone should work for free.