Out of the Forests … The Art of Paul Bonner
Paul Bonner is one of my very favorite artists. I’m excited to post this Out of the Forests book review. In the fantasy genre, he’s right up there with Frank Frazetta. In many ways, I prefer his work to Frazetta’s–mostly because of his style and the way I discovered Bonner’s work.
The first time I recall seeing Paul Bonner’s work and begin dumbstruck was during my table-top wargaming days. The game Warzone was just released and the cover art was stunning. After picking up the book and leafing through it, I realized all of the interior art was equally stunning. All of it was Paul Bonner’s work. His artwork created the feel of the game, gave life to the universe, defined the factions and forces, and made it feel much more “real” than most games at the time of release. My friends and I devoured the book, the artwork, and until an ill-advised second edition played the game often. The second edition story is probably reserved for a wargaming blog, so I’ll stick to discussing Bonner’s magnificent art book Out of the Forests…The Art of Paul Bonner here.
This book is amazing. Bonner works in watercolor and his vision is simply gorgeous. He has created the backdrop and characters for many fantasy games and adventures. The book is broken into sections in accordance with the company for which work was created.
The first section, Rackham, is the thickest section and draws on work created for the company’s Confrontation series of games and cards. The best part about this section of the book and the artwork is that it is definitely not the stereotypical fantasy world suffering from heavy Tolkien influence. Don’t get me wrong. I like Tolkien, but his original ideas have been copied so many times that a new variation on the fantasy genre is very refreshing. Rackham’s designs give each faction its own identity and look. Once you see the artwork, you won’t mistake it for any other game or fantasy universe. The Confrontation game never really took off in the United States. Confrontation the Age of Rag’narok is still available on Amazon and deserves a look if for no other reason than the artwork is fantastic. You can still find models and cards on Amazon, auction sites, and in hobby shops. The early models, when they were still pewter miniatures instead of plastic were beautifully sculpted. The goblin sorcerer below is a fantastic example of the fresh approach to character design that made Rackham’s universe so appealing.
While there are a lot of images in this article, I’ve only photographed a small sampling of the pages in all of the sections of the book. You really need to hold a copy of it to appreciate the amazing paintings. Bonner is incredible at illustrating fine details–things like the sun-dappled branches in a forest. Look at the image below and appreciate the shadows on the ground that imply the forest canopy. Or scroll back up and really allow yourself to drink in the amazing cover painting of the minotaur chained in place to guard a passage. Appreciate the play o flight and shadow and imagine the foresight and skill required to paint it.
In addition to two-page spreads, there are full page plates and sketch pages as pictured below. I absolutely love the creativity and humor Paul Bonner infuses in his paintings. Look at the lancer and the dog in the image below.
Orcs and dwarves. Many fantasy games and stories feature orcs and dwarves as mortal enemies. Few, however, manage to capture the conflict the way Bonner does. In the image above, both orcs and dwarves are fully realized and appear as though they may step off the page. You can appreciate the conversation the orcs must be having and at the same time you lament for the unfortunate dwarf in their grasp. They’re all so well done that you don’t know who you should root for. I root for them both. The spectacle of the battle is just great!
The next section of the book features Bonner’s art for the Mutant Chronicles universe. Again, the work is magnificent. Take a look at the creature clutching the woman in the image below. Look at her expression and the gesture in all the figures, including the injured soldiers on the ground. You can hear them groaning in pain the same way you can appreciate the inquisitor’s intent as he levels the weapon at his target. The monster, whose name I have forgotten, looks almost smug as he defies his enemies. This is one of my favorite mutant chronicles illustrations.
In the pages above, Paul Bonner’s work defines the theme for factions in the Mutant Chronicles world and games. When a reader or player sees these paintings they show him what each faction looks like–how they are realized. With art like this, there’s no wonder the game took off as rapidly as it did!
This section of the book features a series of independent illustrations Bonner painted after traveling Scandinavia during his early years as a working professional. In the open pages of the section Bonner describes his inspiration for the paintings and his effort to create “[his] own epic little folk tale.” The resulting images are a treat.
While each illustration is an independent scene, the viewer can begin to see Bonner’s style develop and his love for forests and their creatures. This , combined with a touch of fantasy is present in each painting.
Bonner’s work for RiotMinds illustrated the world of Trudvang. Theodore Bergquist opens the section with a discussion of Paul Bonner’s impact on the RiotMinds team and describes Trudvang as a fantasy setting “not about streaming fireballs, or knights in glimmering armour and flaming sword, its [sic] about down-to-earth heroes trying to battle nature as much as trolls and other fabulous beasts taken from Scandinavian myths.”
The image on the right page above is one of my favorites from this section. The play of light on the dwarf and goblin battle is fantastic. You’ll also notice the dwarves and goblins are rendered in a more traditional style. Comparing this image to characters featured in the Rackham section illustrates how different a fantasy setting can be despite having similar foundations.
Bonner’s work is marvelous and, for me, it’s the detail and consideration he puts into his work. The pages above illustrate this well. You can feel the panic in the dwarf as he bolts for safety with an arrow clenched between his teeth!
Let’s talk about scale. Look at the size of this beast compared to the goblins. Now appreciate the lighting of the scene. Magic. The mood and emotion of the painting is palpable.
The next section takes us back in time to Bonner’s early days as an illustrator and to the era where Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe was rapidly expanding. John Blanch comments…
“What has fired my imagination is not the guns nor the snarling maws, but something that is intangible which I can only describe as Dickensian or Shakesperian. It has something to do with character, for Paul is unmatched in his ability to create a cast of motley individuals, each one with his origins in a mythology that harkens back many generations to ages of superstition and conflict.”
Yeah. There you have it. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Bonner breathes a life into his illustrations that you just don’t get with many artists. It’s uncanny. For me, his early work on Warhammer was significant. I didn’t realize who the artist was at the time, but his illustrations of Games Workshop’s Orks influenced my appreciation of the game and started a slide deep into the world of tabletop war gaming. I’m still in recovery.
Old Warhammer 40K players will immediately recognize the Shokk Attack Gun featured on the right page.
The Freebooter Orks had a great style. Bonner’s illustration defined them for many players. I love the expression and detail present even in his early work.
The intro to this section is written by Jim Nelson of Fasa and he begins with a comment on Paul Bonner’s humility and relays a story about Bonner’s doubts on whether or not he should enter work into the 1999 juried annual, Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art. He went on to win multiple awards.
Bonner worked on multiple games for Fasa. He did amazing work for Shadowrun, a role-playing game combining modern, sci-fi, and fantasy elements–currently in its fifth edition. The image below, of the pirate troll and dwarves boarding an airship is one of my favorites.
The dynamic movement, accuracy of the anatomy, lifelike expression, and overall character details keeps me engaged with this image. It never gets old.
Bonner also illustrated work for the short-lived game VOR. The box art for the first edition of the game, featured above, convinced me to buy the game. I didn’t hesitate. Had to have it. The game didn’t last long, but the illustrations and paintings are as cool today as they were in the mid-1990s.
The above pages show both VOR concept designs and a scene from Shadowrun.
In the penultimate section of the book, Bonner invites us to join him in his appreciation for dinosaurs. He recounts early influences and how his father introduced him to museums and exhibits and films that fueled his fascination with dinosaurs and other creatures. He recounts how the 1986 book, The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker, full of wonderful illustrations, inspired him to create similar and high caliber work featuring the great, extinct beasts.
Again, look at how dynamic the work is. There’s always something happening. Bonner’s paintings are never still.
I didn’t include a photo of the sculpture pages–this review is already getting long enough, but they are in the book. Bonner created beautiful dinosaur sculptures in various sizes throughout the years.
After talking a prehistoric stroll through Bonner’s dinosaur work, the book shifts gears as Bonner discusses getting an agent shortly after graduating from art school and having hopes of taking “London’s commercial art world by storm.” But it didn’t work out that way. It so rarely does. Instead he discusses the impact of his early adjustment to the demands of the market and how they influenced him to “stick with what made [him] happy.” This section is short and I chose not to include any images in this review from those pages since it’s already long enough. Plus, I think the next section is a treat and I’d rather spend the time there.
If all the eye candy in this book wasn’t enough, in the final pages of the book Paul Bonner invites you into his studio and discusses his process and the way he thinks about his paintings. As an artist, I love when I can learn how another artist, particularly one I admire so much, thinks and works.
Remember the humility I mentioned earlier. In this section Bonner says:
“I really don’t look forward to drawing. I don’t consider myself good at it, one of those fortunate souls who seem to conjure up exquisite drawings with just a few deft flourishes of the pencil. It is a laboured struggle for me to translate my imagination on to a piece of paper…”
I absolutely love this. He’s being real. It gives the rest of us hope. Art is work. It’s hard work. It requires dedication and time and energy and commitment. (By the way, if you haven’t read Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, you should)
Bonner goes on to discuss how he thinks about his work and how he goes from concept to finished painting. It’s a section worth reading multiple times and coming back to now and again for inspiration and as a reminder that it takes real effort. Even our art heroes have to grind at it. It’s why they achieve such high quality work.
That’s the end of the book. Thanks for sticking with this article for this long. It’s difficult to capture the beauty and wonder the 176 pages of the book contain. I hope this article has introduced you to Bonner’s amazing work if you were not already familiar with it. If you knew about him but were on the fence about the book, get off the fence and buy it. It’s a great and necessary addition to any artists (or fan of great fantasy art) library!
Paul Bonner Resources
Paul Bonner’s Website — sadly this link (www.paulbonner.net) seems to have expired. His FaceBook page is alive and well, however.