Russ Nicholson - Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Russ Nicholson - Masks of Mayhem
Russ Nicholson - Masks of Mayhem

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and out and out fantasy feature so I thought I’d do something special and add an interview into the mix, a Sci-Fi-O-Rama first!

The artist in question is Russ Nicholson a personal favourite of mine. I’ve admired his art since childhood and first reading the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks he’s synonymous with. Those books were a huge phenomenon during there peak in the mid 80’s, selling millions worldwide with the series eventually reaching over 50 titles.

The basic premise of a Fighting Fantasy book was a self-contained single-player role-playing adventure. One would explore an Illustrated Fantasy/SF game world by reading numbered paragraphs and then making choices and rolling dice to determine battles etc.  A typical book would involve a perilous quest split into 400 sections and there would often be only one true way through it, sounds fairly straightforward, it wasn’t. I used to cheat most of the time!

I could go on about the books, but another time I think, I’ll add some more notes and links in the footer of this post. One final point I’d like to make Is that in retrospect it’s probably fair to say also the Fighting Fantasy series shares a genetic tie with the work of J K Rowling. They could be considered the Harry Potter’s of their day encouraging many 10-16 years old into reading, I know they certainly worked for me.

So back to Russ and the above examples. What’s most striking if you’re not familiar with is work is the insane decorative intricacy.  Lines wash up and down the page in a gracefully proportioned manner, a style reminiscent of the classic Aubrey Beardsley. For me, though the overriding, enduring factor of Russ’s work are his beautiful characters and the fantastic costume & armour they adorn. Prospective Games Artist’s could well take note…

So onto the interview:

1. What sparked you into following a career of Fantasy Illustration ?
Even from a young age, I was always interested in art and especially drawing. I adored illustration and liked comics as much for the artwork as the subject and soon began to identify, and where possible, name certain illustrators. At home, my liking for art and mythology and fairy tales and legends, if not comics, such as books like the Lang Red Fairy Tale Book was encouraged even at an early age [around 5] what I couldn’t understand in the words I understood in the pictures. At college I did little fantasy work, but my interest continued to grow. My work was also a little darker then, involving a more Gothic monster approach with dark blood and my gods were such as Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Edmund Dulac  and Sydney Sime though I’d little reference to there work; books about them were rare. When I began working professionally I had little choice in what jobs came my way and much of my early fantasy drawings I showed around were considered to be aping Rackham, etc. My fantasy work was not appreciated at that time, so I was drawn, if you parden the pun, to the growing Fantasy and SF and Comic Fanzines that sprang up in the 70’s, and it is there I was able to explore ideas through little spot doodles that I did all the time.

2. What’s the most Satisfying part of Illustrating, what do you enjoy most ?
That’s an easy one. The act of drawing, of creating, the markmaking on paper, and with ilustrating of books, the ability to visualise and create a ‘world’ from a few descriptive lines, which where possible, I can add little touches in the hope of breathing life into the work. My drawing is not always successful but when it is the work gives me pleasure.
Unfortunately some commisioned work is tightly controlled by an editor, or other, for one is not given a full copy of the text and you have to hope that what you ‘create’ suits the totally ‘story’.  The exception is my work on the book Steve Jackson’s ‘Trolltooth Wars’ where I was allowed to design the layout [within certain perameters] and choose the pictures I wanted to do – which I did to try and heighten the reading quality of the book. Whether I succeeded or not is not for me to say, but I know looking back in certainly places I allowed myself to be too literal to the text, and much of it I would have liked to have done in colour. I was also allowed, to a certain degree, freedom with the ‘Forbidden Lands’ Series where I worked in very close harmony with its two authors Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson.

3. What media to you work with?
I adore working in pen and ink, also oil pastel – when the medium is right [there’s a lot of poor quality pastels out there], acrylics, oils [very rusty now], and especially enjoy using watercolour and coloured pencil, but do suffer from being impatient. I also love the subject of  Printmaking especially linocut, lithography and wood engraving but again I’m very rusty now. Occasionally I like to practice to draw with my Wacom tablet and would love to do more.

4. What’s your particular process in creating an Illustration from  Scratch? do you thumbnail sketch, or draw directly?
Oh that varies. When I teach, I stress the importance of planning and preparation following what I call the ‘Design Steps’. Personally I do both, it depends on the task and my state of mind for the creative process is not always on tap, as they say. What I do is think, I don’t mean always consciously, but rather I let my mind ponder the subject and try to internally visualise the ‘picture’ until I can sit in front of the paper or board and begin this can take a week or longer. In the interim there is also the boring matter of checking reference, etc. if required

5. Your Illustrated Characters often are adorned on in highly elaborate costumes / armour –  is there a particular source of inspiration for this? certainly looks like one of the elements you enjoy most…
You’re right, I do enjoy that aspect of my work. I reach within to find my ‘child’ and sometimes I’m lucky and up he pops and says, ‘hi, want to play!’ that with my experience of life, the Universe and everything makes it all happen. My fascination reaches from the past to the future from the ‘known’ to the ‘unknown’ my mind travels for thousands of leagues and countless star miles and from all epochs of time [corny, but sadly, true, laugh]. More prosaically, it also partially derives from my insatiable interest in weapons, battles, costumes, and fantasy of all types -and from all ages, something that has never left me.

—  Many thanks Russ!!

Ok so a few more notes on Fighting Fantasy, you may well be interested to know that it’s just been relaunched by wizard books with brand new titles, a coming iPhone APP and DS Game…. head over to the excellent for much more info!

If it’s information on the original Puffin series of Fighting Fantasy then these sites are great too:

A Wiki list of all the gamebooks with links:

8 thoughts on “Russ Nicholson (2) – Interview

  1. Great stuff. I spent hundereds of hours looking at his drawings as a kid. When I look at that one of the warlock it makes my spine tingle because every little detail is familiar from hours of study.
    Cant wait for you to interview John Blanche, ha ha!

  2. hey up Dick,

    Oh yeah tell me about it, same here I’ll never get bored of looking at Russ’s drawings even 20 plus years later… The Warlock illustration, yeah so cool – check out his Boots! & the stalk curling round his head… it’s really very Sci-Fi too

    John Blanche, good lead! about time I featured him 🙂

  3. Inspiring indeed! Thanks so much for that.

    I think it was ‘Fabled Lands’ that was meant, not ‘Forbidden’… that name has popped up a couple of times, supposedly great books.

    I think Russ is absolutely killer. No-one quite like him.

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