The Master Of Chaos! A Talk With Tony Ackland.

Originally published on https://johnwombat.wordpress.com/ in 2020.

Tony Ackland is responsible for producing some of the finest fantasy and science fiction imagery of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Along with artists such as Ian Miller, Colin Dixon, Paul Bonner, John Sibbick, Jes Goodwin and John Blanche, Tony’s artwork gave life to the worlds of Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 games. In addition to his work on paper, over the years Tony has produced a number of fine fantastical wargaming miniatures too, his sculpting skills being applied to the model ranges of Fine Art Castings, Asgard, Citadel, Harlequin and Black Tree. Honoured to be spared some of his time, this is my talk with the legend that is Tony Ackland.

The Master Of Chaos! A Talk With Tony Ackland… Part 1.

I am always of the opinion that a story is best started at the beginning, and so I began my chat with Tony by asking a little about his background, where he grew up and when literature and artwork first entered his life.

Tony: I was born in Longton, Stoke on Trent.  Apart from a brief period shortly after I was born, when we lived in Oulton near Stone, I lived in Stoke till my late 30’s. My mother had been a paintress in the pottery industry.  She bought me a wide range of comics to help develop my reading skills.  The Eagle and Lion were amongst them, so Dan Dare and Archie the Robot were embedded into my consciousness from an early age.  Dan Dare was also on Radio Luxembourg and Journey into Space was on BBC radio.  There was also the ABC Minors Saturday Matinee For Children at the local cinema.  This was where I first encountered the Flash Gordon serials.

I had drawn for as long as I could remember.  I think it came from a simple drive to clarify the images I imagined.  My first hobby was model making.  The first plastic kit I remember was a 1/48  Aurora  Nieuport 17.  I don’t think Airfix had started.  There were quite a few American imports around, mostly Lindberg and Aurora. 

After a long hiatus, I did return to plastic modelling in my mid-20’s.  This was partly due to the amount of reference material that became available at that time.  All those colour pictures made me want to paint them.  I drifted from aircraft to armour and then to Historex Napoleonic figurines.  It was the latter that would lead to wargaming.  Napoleonic wargaming was the most popular back then.  Later on, I would add late medieval, ECW, Marlburian and WW2 to my gaming periods.  Fantasy wargaming didn’t exist back then.  It was when companies like Ral Partha started to produce high-quality fantasy miniatures that fantasy gaming began.  Unfortunately, most of the rules produced weren’t very good.  It was around this time I met Bryan Ansell and I was soon producing fantasy miniatures for Asgard on a freelance basis.  That would eventually lead to me joining Citadel.

I’m always interested to know what influences artists, musicians and writers, what propels them to follow their chosen path as opposed to being a more passive observer. Tony described how paperbacks and comics were initial touch stones for him and his burgeoning interest in science fiction and fantasy.

Tony: The late SF pulps were a major influence.  Galaxy and Astounding were particularly important.  Not only did they have stories by the top science fiction writers but they also had art by some leading illustrators in the field. Ed Emshwiller, Frank Kelly Freas and Wally Wood come to mind. Virgil Finlay was still doing stuff for Original and Future.  There was the Fleagles, a group of friends working for EC Comics, which consisted of such luminaries as Roy Krenkel, Al Williamson, Angelo Torres and Frank Frazetta. Then there were the artists of the early Mad Magazine.  Jack Davis and Wood were probably the most notable.  There were others whose names I was unaware of until much later.  This includes those producing the posters for different science fiction and horror movies, Albert Kallis, Joseph Smith and Reynold Brown in particular.

  • Frank Frazetta was an American artist noted for his work as a fantasy and science fiction illustrator. During his illustrious career, he worked on numerous comics, books, record covers and film posters, including pieces for Heroic Comics, EC Comics, Mad Magazine and Famous Funnies, also the Tarzan, Conan and Death Dealer characters.

I was quite late in starting up a full-time career in illustration.  The arts being notoriously erratic in terms of work, I preferred a relatively mundane job for security which would allow me to do odd bits of freelance work.  It wasn’t until I joined the  Citadel staff that I settled down to such a career.  After Citadel, I did some freelance work before working mostly for Harlequin/ Blacktree Design.  Then I pretty well retired, still did a few odd pieces here and there though.

I have always found Tony’s artwork to have a distinctive style, with Tony being one of those artists whose work you tend to instantly recognise as theirs. I asked Tony about his preferred art mediums.

Tony: I have always been a bit of an experimenter, but back in the day, the Rapidograph 0.1 pen saw a lot of use.  When I mastered the repro camera I used a lot more pencil.  Pencil was quite difficult to reproduce effectively back then.  The modern scanner has alleviated that problem.

As well as being a prolific illustrator, Tony has produced a number of fine models over the years. I was keen to gain an insight into how his sculpting career developed.

Tony: A couple of us in a small wargames group were fed up with the gaps in the ranges of miniatures that were available.  The solution we thought was to design our own.  Shortly after we had got the hang of it we met the Asgard guys at a show in Stoke on Trent.  Bryan Ansell thought our work was good enough and we started to do freelance work for Asgard.  The other guy ended up starting his own engineering business and didn’t have the time to continue modelling miniatures.  I got to be friends with Bryan and continued doing work for him when he changed companies.  I was doing freelance work for Citadel well before joining them full time.  I also used to produce the odd pieces of promotional artwork for both Asgard and Citadel.  A full-page image of mine ended up uncredited in the first edition of the Fiend Folio (D & D) and another as the cover of the Spacefarers (Games Workshop) rule book. The Asgard miniatures were largely done on a “Do what you feel like” basis.  When I joined Citadel full time, part of my job was to create concepts for the Perry twins to work from.

Written by Bryan Ansell, Richard Halliwell and Rick Priestley, the first edition of Warhammer was released back in 1983. While artist John Blanche provided the superb box art for the game, Tony was responsible for the illustrations within each of the three books that make up the system.

Tony: The first edition of Warhammer is a source of humour to Rick and myself.  It was created in between our main jobs.  I was doing the Citadel monthly adverts for Military Modelling, the monthly fliers for both retail and home customers, catalogue illustration, and concepts for miniatures.  The lack of repro and typesetting equipment meant that it was never going to look that professional.  The first proper playtest of the rules was at Rick’s house with John Stallard and myself playing humans against Rick’s Orcs and Goblins.

I was an active gamer when I joined Citadel.  Got to be less so with the passage of time, but I was part of the playtesting team for the various unofficial games that were considered to worth publishing, during the Victoria Street days.  When I left I did join the Newark Irregulars wargames club, which was responsible for the Partizan wargames shows.

The Master Of Chaos! A Talk With Tony Ackland… Part 2.

Produced by the Games Workshop Design Studio, written by Bryan Ansell, Mike Brunton and Simon Forrest (with additional content form Matt Connell, Graeme Davis and Rick Priestley) ‘Realm Of Chaos: Slaves To Darkness’ was released in 1988. A number of wonderful illustrators provided the sublime artwork for the tome, including Ian Miller, John Blanche, Martin McKenna and Tony Ackland. In 1990, the sister book to ‘Realm Of Chaos: Slaves To Darkness’ was unleashed, ‘Realm Of Chaos: Lost And The Damned’.

Tony: The main chaos god that was omitted was Malal.  He had appeared in a comic strip written by (John) Wagner and (Alan) Grant did for GW.  Somebody failed to note that they had secured the copyright for that particular entity.  So GW dropped him even though I had done artwork for him… Working was pretty straight forward.  A drawing board on a desktop with good lighting.  Back then copious amounts of nicotine and caffeine were consumed.

Warhammer Battle was a bit of a fantasy catch-all.  Its purpose was to promote the sale of miniatures. So any figure in the Citadel range could take its place in a Warhammer army. It did help that I did produce a lot of concepts for the miniatures. John Blanche joined Rick and myself when we started the 2nd edition of Warhammer Battle. Those early days were when there was a great family feeling at the Citadel ‘Studio’. We worked and socialised together. Ideas were always being bounced around.

Warhammer Fantasy Role Play was a different animal. The fact that over 95% percent of the illustrations would be mine with no editorial control meant I could give the world a distinctive look. I had a thing about the Renaissance and decided the early part of that period would provide the setting for the Empire. A handful of thumbnails of the greater and lesser demons produced by John Blanche in consultation with Bryan Ansell were given to me to develop. There was ample room to develop my own ideas in the work I did for Realm of Chaos.

While more noted for his work in creating the fantasy world of Warhammer, Tony also had a hand in developing the Warhammer 40,000 universe too. I’ve included some of my favourite Tony Ackland Warhammer 40,000 pieces of artwork below.

Tony: I actually didn’t do that much on 40K after the initial stages. I think the first thing Rick and I did was the bestiary. That featured a lot of reworked D&D monsters. They were distant enough to avoid copyright issues but close enough that the punters recognized them. There was also one that I stole from a comic by Michael Wm. Kaluta. There were lots of oddments but I suspect I may have been involved in other projects. The coming of Realm of Chaos meant that a lot of the crossover stuff was mine. After doing the bestiary for Call of Cthulhu, I got caught up in a lot of the Chaosium/ GW collaborations. Interestingly I decided to go with a Dark Ages look for Runequest.

Initially a subsidiary of Games Workshop, Flame Publications ran for a short time in the early 1990’s, producing titles including ‘Blood In Darkness’, ‘Death Rock’ and ‘Dwarf Wars’. Along with the likes of Paul Bonner, Paul Campbell, and Adrian Smith, Tony worked on the artwork for some of these books. I asked Tony to tell me more about this time.

Tony: Flame Publications was officially formed to produce scenarios and source material for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play and to try out desk top publishing. This was when the studio was being run by Tom Kirby. Flame consisted of Mike Brunton, Graeme Davies, and myself. Mike was the one who was pushing for DTP. There were several scenarios we had in hand WFRP that needed editing. We also produced original material for White Dwarf. The most regular thing being the Marienburg pieces. We produced one book every six weeks and one article each month in WD. Mike was the leader and editor of the group. Graeme produced additional material and I did most of the artwork and operated the repro camera. The Flame days were good as Mike, Graeme, and myself were a close group with a degree of independence. There was some good stuff in the ‘Drachenfels’ WFRP supplement.

Graeme left to work for another company. Mike and myself carried on for a while, and then he left to work for a computer games company. They were eventually replaced by Carl Sargent and Robin Dews. The difference was that the independence we had disappeared with Mike’s departure. So it wasn’t long before we went back to the main studio.

The only work Paul Bonner did for Flame was for some elves when I broke my wrist. Adrian was too busy at the studio to do any work for Flame. There were a few freelancers who provided art for Flame. The illustrator who produced the most material for Flame after myself was Martin McKenna.

Before joining Mike Brunton and Graeme Davies at Flame publications, the last major project I had a big part in was the Confrontations role-playing game. A lot of work went into it, but apart from a few pieces in White Dwarf (produced by Flame publications) it was never published. It did give rise to Necromunda a few years later. The original was a much darker work.

Music can often inspire creative individuals. I was interested to know if Tony was a keen music fan or musician and whether he found listening to music conducive to working.

Tony: My musical tastes are somewhat eclectic. Like Jim Steinman I grew up with a mixture of Rock and Roll and Classical music. I find music that I like distracting when working. Although a bit of Mussorgsky or Borodin can set the mood. The same can be said of the use of Ligeti’s themes in ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’.

Tony: ‘Realm of Chaos’ was one of those projects that took a long time to come into fruition.  Bryan (Ansell) was a big fan of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Eternal Champion’ books, which were the main inspiration for the Chaos gods.  The original size planned for the ‘RoC’ was a 64-page single volume.  Saying that it grew beyond expectations is something of an understatement.  It had been initially planned that all the artwork would be done by Ian Miller and myself, but the size it grew to meant that freelance artists had to be co-opted in. 

During a prolifically creative period in the mid to late-1980’s, the four main Chaos gods were established for Games Workshop’s Warhammer world, these being Khorne, Nurgle, Slaanesh and Tzeentch. However, during the initial design phases other Chaos gods had been put forward, one of these was Malal. It had been through comic strip writers John Wagner and Alan Grant that Malal first crept into existence, Malal’s champion was Kaleb Daark.

The Master Of Chaos! A Talk With Tony Ackland… Part 3.

The precursor to 1995’s Necromunda, Confrontation (which will be featured in a future blog article) is a game system by Games Workshop which was never released in earnest, with it’s rules only published in issues of White Dwarf magazine in 1990. Rick Priestley, Bryan Ansell and Nigel Stillman wrote the rules and background for Confrontation, meanwhile one of the illustrators tasked with creating the dystopian environment for the game was Tony Ackland.

Tony: Confrontation was to be a role-playing game set in the 40K universe. Although set in the 40K universe, the planet it is set upon hardly reflects any other worlds. The planet is a hive world with a surface so polluted that it is inimical to human life. Most activity takes place either in towers or underground. Society is organised into gangs, who are often at war over territorial disputes. Over the years, sections of the interior have fallen into disuse and become the home of various mutations. Occasionally, some of these creatures make it into the human-occupied areas.

Some gangs send expeditions into the mutant zones with the intention of expanding their own territory. There are odd groups of scavengers that venture onto the surface to reclaim anything of value from the garbage-strewn environment. The use of special clothing is required for these expeditions, and even then the time that can be spent there is limited. Besides the toxic atmosphere, there are also mutant lifeforms and competing groups of scavengers. It was Bryan’s idea and he gave Nigel Stillman the job of writing it, and me the task of illustrating it. John Blanche did a few thumbnails of characters which had a 1970’s punk rock look as the basis from which to develop the look. This was the last role-playing game project taken on by the GW studio. The decision to stop producing RPG’s in the studio in favour of tabletop games was what killed it. Some work was carried on for it by the Flame crew for publication as White Dwarf articles.

Released in 1987, Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader was written by Rick Priestley. Originally intended as more of a science fiction role-playing game, Warhammer 40,000 would go on to become Games Workshop’s most successful tabletop wargame.

Tony: Rogue Trader had a stranger genesis than even Realm Of Chaos. It had been planned for years, but the final product was very different from the original ideas. Even in the later stages things were being created and then discarded. I did quite a lot of concepts just before we went to work on it properly. The thing that had the lasting impact was design of the Space Marines by Bob Naismith. They may have changed over the years but the origin is obvious. The fact that Bryan called them Space Wombles shows how seriously we took it back then. The very first illustrations were, strangely enough, those for the bestiary. My main contributions were to do with robots, landscapes, and Orks.

I think Rogue Trader employed more freelancers than any other GW project. The most notable was Will Self and John Blanche, the latter who was art editor at the time. John wanted all the other freelancers to emulate Will’s style. Even John attempted it to some degree. Eventually, I found it frustrating. At one point it was decided that the humour, which had been such a big part of Citadel/GW products, should be totally dropped. That alone killed several pictures. It was the overlap between 40K and Realm Of Chaos that I enjoyed. I did enjoy doing the Chaos Marines and the Space Beastmen.

Tony left Games Workshop towards the end of 1991. He moved on to creating illustrations for White Wolf and Grenadier, as well as working in figure design for Target. This was followed by a long association with Harlequin Miniatures/ Black Tree Design, as Tony worked on a number of figure designs, concepts and illustrations. Organisers of regular and spectacular Partizan Wargaming events, Nottingham based business Sloppy Jalopy is another company that Tony provided models for.

Tony: I also did some concepts for Diego Serrate (Knightmare Miniatures, official website HERE.) based on the old GW Chaos stuff. These were tied to a redesigned and renamed Malal. There were some illustrations in Fantacide and I had started work on an aborted sequel to All Quiet On The Martian Front (official website HERE).

I was interested to know more about the models Tony has sculpted. I also wondered how he worked when sculpting miniatures and the tools and materials he tended to use.

Tony: It was back in the late 1970’s. Like many wargamers, our club was frustrated at the gaps left by miniature companies in their armies. The solution was to make our own. The first successful figure I did was a horse, followed by a dismounted French Napoleonic Hussar with a carbine. Greenwood and Ball were very helpful, even giving us some master metal. Shortly afterwards, I would meet Bryan Ansell at a wargames show in Longton, Stoke on Trent. That was the beginning of a long association.

So it was that I started making figurines for Asgard on a freelance basis. Those early miniatures were all made in Milliput. When Bryan moved to Citadel I carried on a similar arrangement. He then went to tabletop games. At the same time I was doing large scale figures for Fine Art Castings, most notably a 120mm equestrian model of Lord Mountbatten and a 120mm figure of Chris Achilleos’ original Raven cover art. This was the first time I worked on an identifiable range, Laserburn. This was the time that Tom Meir introduced Green Stuff to the modelling world. When Bryan went back to Citadel he asked if I would join the company full time.

I used to make a lot of my own tools in the early days. Needles ground down till they had a cutting edge were useful. Later on, as Green Stuff took over, I used a selection of dental tools. The sharpened needles were still useful as were brass rods, which were ideal for smoothing down surfaces.

The Mountbatten model was breaking new ground for me, so I was somewhat happy that the Horse Guards found only one minor error. I was happy about the 1910 bus I did for Sloppy Jalopy, and the original Hippogriff I did for Black Tree. The current version has thicker wings which were made to make it easier to cast but doesn’t look as good.

The Master Of Chaos! A Talk With Tony Ackland… Part 4.

Tony has previously mentioned his use of Photoshop and his Wacom tablet when it comes to creating digital artwork. I asked Tony if he could provide an insight into his digital illustrations and how the process develops.

Tony: The process is pretty well the same as the traditional approach. Start with rough sketches then build up from background to foreground. I create structures for figures which I then build up. The advantage with digital is that underdrawings can be eliminated. The following examples showing the various stages should give some idea.

Like many others, I do speculative sketches that are kept because they might serve as the basis for a future finished piece.  More are generated than ever put to use. The level of finish varies.  These should give some idea.

While Radiograph pens and pencils were Tony’s primary art tools when he first set out in his art career, these days his main artistry apparatus is his Wacom tablet. Given the decades that Tony has already dedicated to fantasy and science fiction artwork, and now being retired, I wondered if he still gave much time to this creative field.

Tony: My main tool is now a Wacom Intuous graphics tablet. I do still have a collection of mechanical pencils going from 0.3mm,0.5mm,0.9mm, 2mm, and 5.6mm. I also have some fibre tip pens which have taken the place of the Rotring. The advent of the 0.05mm pen has added to the versatility of fibre tips. I haven’t used an airbrush for a long time but I still have all the equipment. The time varies a lot. It’s largely down to how I feel. When I recently revisited the subject of Cthulhu Mythos I spent around the same amount of time I did when I was at GW. It comes down to a mixture of health and inspiration.

Tony has sculpted some wonderful models over the years, below is a selection of some of his most impressive, Aangor, Golgoth, his Dwarf Juggernaut, and an Orc War Machine, each of which were designed during Tony’s tenure at Games Workshop. Produced in the 1980’s, these multipiece metal models often required pinning and careful assembly, resulting in the kits being sold with the note “For advanced modellers only.”

  • The Balrog Aangor: “Most foul and deadly of all his kind is the Balrog Aangor, Slayer of Gods, Greater Demon of the Deepest Pits of Hell. Before him even Balrogs and Demons quail in terror, squealing pitifully like squashed infants. His body is black beneath a cake of running sores and blood-crusted fur. His skin sweats sickly scented blood, his foaming jaws spit rotting gore, and dark blood pours constantly from his ears, nostrils and eyes. Every inch of his body is slimy and slippery with vileness. The stench of decay and putrescent flesh that he exudes is alone sufficient to tear apart the mind of a mortal. This is the least of Aangor’s powers, for he is also a potent wizard, with dark and unfathomable secrets; magics far beyond the scope of living creatures.” Bellicose Bestiary, Warhammer, Games Workshop.
  • Dwarf Juggernaut: “Engineered by dour Dwarf artisans and crewed by stalwart Dwarf labourers, this large and weighty multi-part kit is Tony Ackland’s most ambitious work yet. The model includes a cannon and steam boiler as well as a crew of 4 sturdy Dwarfs amongst its total of 30 separate castings.” Games Workshop.
  • Orc War Machine: “Tony Ackland’s famous and ever popular Orc War Machine, previously featured in our Citadel Presents range, now recognised as a true monstrosity. A huge stone throwing engine comprising of a multi-part giant catapult and crew of 3 Orcs.” Games Workshop.
  • Golgoth: “Mighty Lord of Balrogs is a monumental kit in 5 parts.” Games Workshop.

Science fiction pulps have been a major source of inspiration for Tony, along with the works of illustrators such as Ed Emshwiller, Wally Wood and Frank Frazetta. I was keen to know of any other literary and art interests of Tony’s. I was interested to find out more about his enthusiasm for entomology and palaeontology too.

Tony: Tales of supernatural horror were up there with science fiction. Authors such as Arthur Machen, E F Bensen, M R James, Frank Belknap Long, H P Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton, and Fritz Leiber. Some of those mentioned also wrote fantasy and science fiction, most notably Fritz Leiber.

The classic fantasy stories of Robert E Howard are quite important. These days with the exception of Christopher Fowler’s brilliant Bryant and May stories, I read mostly urban fantasy and steampunk. For urban fantasy there are the Dresden Files stories of Jim Butcher, the Rivers of London, tales of Ben Aaronovitch, and the October Daye and Incryptid books of Seanan McGuire. The most entertaining steampunk stories I’ve come across are those of Gail Carriger. Shelley Adina, Pip Ballantine, and George Mann are also worth reading.

I had a general interest in natural history at a very early age. At some point, I took more of a deeper interest in creepy crawlies. Possibly as a means of overcoming the feeling of creepiness that some could engender. A friend of mine found a trilobite and that started the geology thing going. Living in the area of Palaeozoic sedimentary rocks led that to being the part of geology that was easiest to study. Although I had some general interest history it was collecting figurines and wargaming that deepened it. I realised that you had to have some knowledge of general history to put military history in context.

In addition to reading books, films are a great source of entertainment and enjoyment for Tony. I questioned if he had any favourites and if there is a particular genre that he finds himself drawn back to. In discussing this, Tony referenced his preferred way of relaxing too, “Watching DVD’s and reading reprints of pre-code comics.”

Tony: Films pretty much reflect my taste in reading. Back in the fifties the most popular films were westerns, probably followed by crime. It was science fiction and horror that I liked the most. The late fifties and early sixties were the age of cheap exploitation movies aimed at teenagers. Being six foot tall at the age of twelve the X and A certificates proved to be no barrier. I still go back to the old film noir thrillers and mysteries of the 30’s and 40’s. Films such as ‘My Murder Sweet’, ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘Laura’ are very atmospheric and have great dialogue.

Tony Ackland is one of my favourite illustrators and I have enjoyed his work for many years. Being spared some of Tony’s time, finding out more about his art and being able to ask him some questions has been a huge honour. This being the fourth and final part of my blog feature on him, in addition to his decades of producing some amazing, along with some truly iconic, illustrations and models, I would like to say a big thank you to Tony for his time, efforts and contributions to this blog. Thank you, Tony!

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