We all have that one experience when combing through a role-playing game book where we come upon an artwork and it causes us to stop. But we are not stopping exactly, we are just changing over to another type of engagement where we become enthralled. Pouring over that work, ideas start to glimmer and shine in our minds, possibilities emerge.
For me, consistent and inspiring moments occur when viewing the paintings and drawings of Portland, Oregon artist, Adam Burke.
I first encountered Burke’s art without even realizing it. In my rampant accumulation and listening to music, there were several album covers that had stood out to me: Jess and the Ancient One‘s Astral Sabbath, Pilgrim‘s II: Void Worship, and Occultation‘s Silence in the Ancestral House. And they all stood out for the same reasons: technique, attention to detail, the way energy and light flows and is distributed, and how they contributed to the experience of the album.
Often Burke’s talents are called upon album covers to manifest magnificent landscapes with elements of the fantastic. It could be a figure, swirling pools, or an unearthly color emanating with origins unknown. This particular piece’s magic stems from several sources. While the foggy valley cuts through hills laden with trees, there are sprites dancing among them; points of light flourishing while the sun sets. But while attention looms among these denizens of the foliage, another actions is occurring: night. Is the darkness falling from the sky or is lifting from the ground; perhaps both. It is this element that invokes the sublime residing in this piece.
For a DM, I see this as an emergence of otherworldly forces: the Shadow or Feywild coming to claim what is theirs. This painting tells a story, but it is one that is incomplete and one that can be taken up by the imaginations of DM and players.
If you asked me what dark fey lords look like, I would hand you about half a dozen pieces of Adam’s work. The above, Nightjar, is a spot on. It has, what seems to be, a bağlama that only a spindly inhuman creature could play. The gentle eyes laid upon the neck of the instrument with the utmost care while wearing a cloak that is almost not present. Certainly this figure invokes notions of death, but if we look back to the definition of “fey” from Scotland, it means the foreboding of death; but not dead yet the status of the in-between. And is that not what the feywild is?
I love folk horror! In fact, the campaign that preceded the Skull & the Eye (Toell’s Bed) began as a folk horror tale. Burke’s piece captures that sense of folk with something to hide. Obviously the goat depicted reminds me of 2015’s The Witch (Black Phillip is the horror villain we all deserve). But there are questions that this piece provokes: why five over-sized bells? why the clear cut colors? Why is it led by the black half? But of all the questions provoked in me by Locks, it is this one that haunts, “Why is the human figure draped in hair?” Is it a cultural hair-do, one that is the norm for youth of this area? What are the functions of the sticks they hold? All these could be the details that make a region in a D&D campaign properly unique and make players recall it for years to come. And here is the kicker: all these questions are ones hovering around hidden meanings behind things that can be readily perceived. This is the occult, as classical of a definition as ever; and that is what fuels folk horror
Years back, in my Philosophy of Art class, I wrote a paper about how titles of works are corruptive to our understanding. And the title of this piece is guilty of that crime. In that I understand the locks of hair, surrounding the figure, but also is this figure (gender unknown) bound to this goat, locked in its service. Are they locked in a prison of their locks of hair? There are so many fantastical elements my mind can take this piece to and that means there are just as many chances for storytelling as a DM.
My wife and I own this original painting. It hangs, framed, above the table where my group plays D&D. Honestly, I just adore it for it has an orb, draconic claw, and a tome. I play wizards (the orb), love D&D (the dragon’s claw), and I am a librarian (the book, duh!). That said, it really shows off how Adam can manifest energy and the movement it takes on, all while changing states.
Another fey figure, púca are commonly consider to be shape changing fairies that are both malevolent and benevolent. The above painting is completely in-line, for it is certainly haunting, even menacing as the goat portions rear on the hind-legs, while exposing ribs or branches all while having fresh, healthy growing thickets sprout from its neck. All this, while being faceless, leaving the viewer with uncertainty to the intention. This figure draws me in as it is staring right at me without eyes. But consider the dark goat of the bog, that element beyond our sight.
Take some time and visit Adam Burke’s website and various social media accounts to get inspired:
The Art of Adam Burke
Nightjar Illustration Store
Nightjar Art of Adam Burke on Facebook
Adam Burke on Instagram
And be sure to scope out Adam’s killer bands:
What pieces of his are you digging and inspiring your imagination? Let me know on Twitter (@OnlyPlayWizards)