Fantasy Artist Keith Parkinson: An Interview With His Son Nick

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Every gamer and fan of fantasy certainly knows Keith Parkinson’s art. He was the man behind the original EverQuest’s iconic cover art, as well as a cover artist for fantasy authors like Margaret Weiss, Tracy Hickman and Terry Brooks. Parkinson later went on to become the Art Director for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.

It was then appropriate that in early February, Sigil Games dedicated their launch party to Keith’s work and that of his close friend Larry Elmore. Held in San Fransisco, the event marked the start of a cross-country tour to celebrate the two men’s work. At the party, their works lined the walls and showed the range of both men’s talents. It was surprising to see that so many iconic scenes could belong to one man.

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In October of 2005, Keith lost his battle with Leukemia and was taken from his family much too soon. As the tour commemorating his work continues onto its second stop in the coming days, we were lucky enough to have his son Nick Parkinson – the Community Manager for Vanguard – to take the time and tell us about his father and his art.

WarCry Q&A: Keith Parkinson Art Interview
Answers by Nick Parkinson
Questions by Dana Massey

WarCry: You mentioned at the party in San Francisco that sometimes you commercial artwork is overlooked. Why do you feel this is?

Nick Parkinson: I think there’s a few reasons. For most people, I think it’s just because it’s everywhere. You pick up a book or a game at the mall and they have cool dragons and monsters on the cover. I think people appreciate it, but not a lot of thought goes in to who created it. Folks are more interested in the actual book or the game they’re there to buy – and that’s fine.

For a much smaller, but unfortunately sometimes much louder group of people, I think it’s more because it was not art done just for art’s sake and they think (incorrectly) the fact someone got paid for it somehow cheapens the art. The upside though is that time seems to wear those sentiments away. Nearly all of the classical masters did commissions for wealth patrons and now they’re critically loved. Even some modern commercial artists such as Norman Rockwell are now critically acclaimed.

The fantasy artwork genre is interesting though, in that solely for the fact that it is a sub-genre it is not mainstream, and therefore does not get mainstream recognition – but at the same time is also one of the most viewed and accessible forms of commercial art out there.

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WarCry: Can you outline the contributions Keith made to Vanguard?

Nick Parkinson: Keith was one of the founding members of Sigil and served as our Art Director from the company’s inception to the time of his death in October 2005. During that time, he was responsible for the overall look of the game, and anything related to the game. That included contributing a great deal of concept art, being highly involved in the planning and creation of environmental, player character and NPC artwork and working with individual artists to help develop their skills, as well as a myriad of other things.

WarCry: His array of work is impressive. Do you happen to know which he was most proud of? What about you, is there any particular piece that carries a special weight?

Nick Parkinson: There were a few pieces he was particularly proud of but two in particular stood out as his personal favorites. First, The Druid’s Stone. It was a personal project of his that he put on the cover of his first art book. He got to paint a forest scene, a dragon and a woman – the three things he liked painting the most.

The second is called Chernevog. It was the cover to a C.J. Cherryh book of the same name. This is also one of my personal favorites of his. It’s just a powerful piece, the palette is subdued but strong and the piece invokes real emotion.

My other favorites of his are generally covers he did for some of the authors whose books I loved (David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks).

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WarCry: For artists, can you outline some of the techniques he used and the process he underwent to create new work?

Nick Parkinson: Before he started to paint anything he’d concept out the piece first. Typically he’d go through a few pages of rough thumbnails that he’d then narrow down to two or three. Once he had those selected, he’d do more detailed concept sketches of them and send them off to the publisher or whoever had commissioned the piece and they’d talk about it with him and then choose one.

Then he would decide what medium he wanted to use (typically oil on masonite) redraw the sketch that was chosen on there and get painting. People ask how long it took him to paint any particular piece a lot, and it really depends how big it was and what it was of. For something big like an EverQuest cover, that whole process could take up to a month. For book covers, sometimes only two weeks.

WarCry: How about his early career and path to Vanguard. Can you talk about what he did, how he got started and caught his first break?

Nick Parkinson: He technically got his start at a company in Chicago called Advertising Posters, who had nothing to do with either advertising or posters but instead created the artwork for backings of pinball machines and some of the earliest arcade games.

His big break came though when he was hired by TSR (creators of Dungeons & Dragons) in the early 1980s. He, along with Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley and Clyde Caldwell created nearly all of the art for Dungeons & Dragons and its related (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, etc) products during the D&D heydays of the 1980s.

After leaving TSR to do freelance work, he moved on to doing primarily book covers. His works have appeared on the covers of books by Terry Goodkind (with whom he was good friends), David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Anne McCaffrey and Orson Scott Card to name a few.

Then, as video games – particularly PC games, started to become big, he started working more and more in that area, which ultimately led to him doing the EverQuest covers and the rest is history.

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WarCry: What about video games drew him in?

Nick Parkinson: He recognized early on that the industry was very close to becoming massively popular, and when he got in, he had a lot more freedom to paint the kinds of things he wanted as a lot of guys making the games were the same guys who grew up fans of his D&D art.

WarCry: Your father is known for his fantasy art, but did he ever do work outside that genre?

Nick Parkinson: He did the occasional sci-fi piece but fantasy was his favorite and that’s usually where he stayed, though a lot of his later work (such as the covers to Terry Goodkind’s novels) focused more on epic landscapes.

WarCry: For you, you must have grown up around art. How did the influence your eventual path to game developer and what was it like for you to work at the same company as your father?

Nick Parkinson: I think it was kind of unavoidable that I’d end up in the field that I did. I grew up completely surrounded by it and have always loved not only just the feeling of creating something but the sense of camaraderie you get working with a team of guys who share your vision.

As for working with my father, we’d wanted to work together on something for a long time and while we had a few side projects that unfortunately were never able to come to fruition, Sigil was where we really had that chance. I’d seen him work my entire life, but actually getting to work with him for the few years that I was able to is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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WarCry: Talk about the genesis of the art tour. How did it come to being and what does it mean to you?

Nick Parkinson: We’ve always felt that one of the things that set Vanguard apart from other games was Keith’s artistic style and influence. We want the game art to be reminiscent of an oil painting and what better way to show that then by putting them next to each other?

SOE originally approached us with the idea for the tour and wondered if we could send a couple paintings. We loved the idea and it grew from there.

The show means a lot to me. There’s so many art students out there who are interested specifically in this field and to be able to show at their schools… we know a lot of people are going to see the art, and I really hope it can have the same affect on some of them as it has on all of us here at Sigil.

WarCry: Can you outline the basics of the show, what it’s for and where it is headed?

Nick Parkinson: The show is called “The Masters of Fantasy Art – A Tribute to Keith Parkinson”. It kicked off with the opening party up in San Francisco. Not only were we able to display a lot of Keith’s work but we also had the fantastic Vanguard box cover done by Donato Giancola (who Keith wanted to do the cover, if he couldn’t) and several pieces by the legendary Larry Elmore, the current EverQuest box cover artist and long time friend of my father’s.

The show will stay in San Francisco through February and then we’ll be moving on to Las Vegas. The complete tour dates are:

And depending on how it goes, you may see another city or two added in there as well.

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WarCry: Are there any plans for anything else based around your father’s work?

Nick Parkinson: There absolutely is. There’s a lot of art he’s done that’s kind of been hidden away for a long time, which is a shame — because this stuff was painted to be seen. We want to get it out there, and while it’s too early to give a lot of details we definitely want to at least put out a few more books.

Keith was an extremely talented artist with iconic works. The tour is well worth checking out if you’re in the area. You can also see more of Keith’s art on the official website.

A special thanks to Nick and to Sigil and SOE for putting this together and talking to us about it.

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