Lawrence Snelly’s time with Vampire: the Eternal Struggle goes back. Way back. As both artist and art director for White Wolf during the mid to late-1990s, Snelly was one of the key artistic minds behind the look of the World of Darkness. I feel like I have an almost personal connection to his art: when I opened my very first starter deck of Jyhad in late 1994, it was Snelly’s work – Smudge the Ignored, to be specific – that I first saw. I was a fan straight away, and have always loved his contributions to the game.
Lawrence, or Larry as he’s often credited, has since moved away from illustration and is now primarily a sculptor. It was a great privilege to spend some time with him and find out more about his work with White Wolf.
B: I know your work primarily through your collaborations with White Wolf, but I understand you did a number of pieces for Magic: the Gathering around the same time. How did you found yourself in the world of roleplaying games and collectable card games in the mid-1990s? Were their specific challenges working for one or the other?
LS: The RPG and CCG worlds are very similar, and I never found working in them to be a challenge. I ended up at White Wolf because I was a packaging designer for Ral Partha miniatures, and they had recently taken on the White Wolf license to produce figures. I was looking for freelance illustration work and loved White Wolf’s aesthetic, so I sent Rich Thomas my portfolio and got hired as a freelancer. Awhile later I was hired full-time and eventually made art director.
The Magic cards happened because I worked at White Wolf and the two companies were very close back then. The art directors shared talent so we ended up working on each other’s projects. Even though I only did a few cards, it was the gift that kept on giving. I still get cards to sign today.
B: You were White Wolf’s Art Director for many years, and during a critical period of growth and change for the company. How did you go about crafting the look and feel of the World of Darkness, and curating a bench of artists that shared your vision?
LS: The WOD look was already established by the time I arrived – I just expanded upon the vision that Rich [Thomas], Josh [Timbrook] and Mark [Rein-Hagen] had established. I got most of my talent pool from the comic book industry, where I knew a lot of artists. Guy Davis, Vince Locke and Jill Thompson were itching to work for us because White Wolf was terribly cool and our rates were triple the industry page-rate. I also found a lot of talent through portfolio reviews at conventions and visiting art schools. At my former alumni, CCAD (Columbus College of Art & Design), I found Steve Prescott who was about to graduate.
B: Did you get the chance to play any of the World of Darkness games, or were you strictly involved in the art side?
LS: I was strictly on the art side and wasn’t a gamer. Some poor soul at White Wolf tried to teach me VtES but it was far too complicated. Live-action roleplaying literally freaked me out.
B: Onto your art, I’ve seen a range of styles from you – from painted pieces through to digital. Does that range come through a desire to experiment and push expectations, or is it driven more by the brief and/or the mood or theme that you’re aiming for?
LS: My sample pieces for White Wolf were all Bradstreet ripoffs; I changed my style to ink wash since it was quick and let me hone my watercolor skills. From there I started to paint in color and then started to play in Photoshop once I got to know it. The digital stuff was 10 times faster so I did that for awhile until I realized everyone was doing it and it was starting to get stale. Someone remarked that my watercolor work was more interesting so I went back to that and stayed there.
B: Do you have a preferred medium, and do you have any personal favourite pieces?
LS: I had a great art teacher named Fred Graff who taught me watercolor and it’s my preferred medium.
My favorite piece is Hadrian Garrick. My friend Ash is the model, and Mark Chiarello (DC Comics’ Art Director) really liked it when I showed it to him. It’s also the only piece of Vampire: the Eternal Struggle art that I own.
B: I love Hadrian Garrick; it’s a stand-out piece of art, and I love the composition. I love Smudge too; it has an almost intimate quality to it. Are there any secrets you can spill on how you approach your portraits – do you do preliminary sketches, for example, or play around with poses?
LS: I did minimal sketching back then and mostly relied on an idea and photo reference. I remember that shoot because I had to rig a set of vertical blinds in front of my lights so the shadows would fall on Ash’s face just right. Once I had my photos, I picked the one I liked and made my painting from that. The Setite snake elements were fun to put in and I used an art deco color palette to give it a retro feel.