Russ Nicholson built my Hammer

The Oldhammer crowd is a funny beast. Chatting about the books that made such an impression on you at a young age tends to throw up odd little inconsistencies. One of the main ones that I've become aware of is how people react to different artists. We all know the classic images from the rule books and we have them burned into our collective memories. The illustrators were the most important members of the GW team in a way. Without their work the books would have been endless streams of text with the occasional pics of miniatures. GW always employed a range of illustrators and their styles varied immensely and was as much a matter of taste as your favourite miniature sculptor.

A lot of the guys I talk to have a love for Tony Ackland's stuff and I can see why, his stuff is detailed and evocative and has filled the Warhammer tomes with some of their most memorable images. Some people will even go out of their way to own a piece of his work but, can I tell you a secret?

I don't like it. Something about the way he drew the human (or non-human) form just didn't connect with me. I found it too delicate and at the same time stiff and unnatural (can I just stress that this is only my opinion). 

One of the illustrators who made the grade however was Russ Nicholson. Russ had been working in Fantasy art for ages having done the original Fighting Fantasy Book 'Warlock of Firetop Mountain'

And also did the illustrations for the 1st edition of the Fiend Folio

But it was his vibrant, violent, complex images for warhammer the caught my attention. It was his work that made me want to take art at school (even though I wasn't very good) and it was his work that I wanted to emulate. His black and white pieces were full of clever use of line work and dark areas shade. The images seem to coalesce from a flurry of lines and dots and appear almost ephemeral, like a picture suddenly solidifying from tv static.

The movement with in his is balanced with his brilliant grasp of form and shape, the horses in the above pic are gorgeously rendered and you can feel the wild abandon of the charge as it thunders towards who ever is unlucky enough to be receiving it.

Pics like the one above are so full of detail that its impossible to take it all in one go. The bear repeated visits and reward you with new details everytime.

The battle scene above is complex and confusing, Elf vs Elf with Skaven at their feet. He uses effects that are more akin to a comic artist to show the effects a (magical?) weapons hit against the shield. The press and confusing of battle, bodies being crushed beneath the combatants feet, blood spraying from their wounds.

The empire portayed in the picture above is a brilliant mix of the historical and the fantastic, the grim faced veterans crowded round the ramparts, ready to repulse the attack of the faceless foe. Implacable and richly garbed they are the perfect reflection of the Fighter figures that Aly Morrison made at the time. Everything the Empire should be.

The picture of the traitor marine above, more than any other, makes me think of Kevin O'Neill's work on Nemesis the Warlock for 2000ad. The same gory anarchy and a similarly eldritch approach to line and shade.

So there you have it. Russ Nicholson was above all the artist that drew me into Warhammer and expanded my lust for bloody miniature conflict. Thanks Russ. If you want to see far more of his stuff then check out his blog there is a host wonderful stuff in there, including the last piece he was working on for GW before they parted company.


  1. Great post. Russ Nicholson is one of all time favourite fantasy artists. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was my intro into fantasy, and as such Russ has had a major influence on my tastes ever since. You can return to his art again and again and keep seeing new details.

  2. You're so not joining our Tony Ackland Appreciation Club now. I'm tearing up the application, see? Here it goes. I'm doing it. It's done.

  3. I agree Nicholson is like Early Blanche, they have an unbeatable evocative power. Yo ualways get a little something in the back, or a detail you don't see right away that don't only set an action but a whole scene.
    That's what makes these so defining for the universe they belong to, they shape it but with no words so you can still make those live.

  4. Nicholson is one of my favourite's too, you may have seen my modelling homage to his Warlock of Firetop Mountain illustrations. I'm not a huge fan of Blanche's work, but I do love a bit of Adrian Smith, Paul Bonner and Ian Miller - all massively influenced my gaming upbringing

  5. Adrian Smith and Paul Bonner got my attention the most back then, but Nicholson certainly was up there, especially as you've mentioned, with the Fighting Fantasy illustrations. Nice to go down memory lane with posts like these - thanks man.

  6. My all time favourite (my blog pic may be a give-away). I know what you mean about Ackland, though his work has grown on me massively over time, a little like Olley, I had to age a bit to appreciate it's gnarliness.

  7. Also not a huge Ackland fan.

    My first exposure to Russ Nicholson was Fiend Folio back in the eighties, and the 10 (or so) year old me... despised it. Even hated it. But something happened as I got older, and now I have to place Nicholson among my favourites, and as an illustrator myself, one of my bigger influences. Having said that, there's something about his sic-fi work that doesn't appeal to me: maybe his line work is so organic that it doesn't lend itself to hard, technological lines, I'm not sure, I could never put my finger on it.

    Whenever I place three little lines or dots on an illustration to break up a white space, it's always been my little tip of the hat to Russ Nicholson.

  8. For me it is Russ's images that were used in the #rd ed Siege book...some really great imagery there.

  9. Amen on Nicholson. His art in White Dwarf and the gamebooks he drew have left an indelible mark on me. He is definitely one artist I would love to get an original piece from.

  10. I agree 100%. Of the artists closely associated with the games/gamebooks we play, Russ Nicholson is for me the most inspirational and the worlds he creates are the ones that still live in my head 25 years since the first encounter. For me, he's part of a wonderful tradition of fantasy illustration that you can trace back through Arthur Rackham, etc. - in some respects its an approach that's not well represented in the games played today, where the influences come more from comic book and computer game art - nothing wrong with those influences, of course, they just don't come from the same place that formed and fed my imagination.

  11. Russ was my illustration teacher back in the early nineties! Fantastic illustrator and a top bloke to boot! Got many a chance to drool over his original pieces back in the day and struggled to not copy him!

  12. I was sent this link Thanks to Tony {Hough} and having read it and the praise the original article gives my work and the comments added I can only say I'm overwhelmed and most appreciative.

    I hope to show more work in the coming year on my occasional blog: Russ Nicholson: The Gallery [blog spot],and with luck, in a new web site.

    1. Wow! Hello there. I will keep an eye out for your new website and can I just thank you again for your work. Lets just say it's left it's mark.

  13. One of my favourite artists as well along with Paul Bonner, got one of his goblins as my Mac wallpaper at work


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