Neverwinter exclusive: artist Greg Rutkowski reflects on 10 years of D&D magic

Neverwinter; dragons and wizards in a painting
(Image credit: Gearbox / Wizards of the Coast LLC)

Neverwinter is ten years old, and I can't quite believe it; this was one of the first free-to-play MMORPGs on console and it remains a must-play. Dungeons & Dragons' innovative role-player game proved free-play games could succeed. It helped that Neverwinter was supported by the deep lore and writing of D&D and the Forgotten Realms, but also the kind of epic art and visual magic that tabletop gamers had come to love. For me, Neverwinter set the tone for a decade of online RPGs.

To celebrate the Neverwinter 10th anniversary I sit down with the renowned Dungeons & Dragons artist, Greg Rutkowski. I take a dive deep into the artistry behind Neverwinter and explore the creative process of this fantastic artist, who's rich, classical painting style has defined this game for a decade. (Read my article on how AI has affected Greg Rutkowski for more on this artist.)

Rutkowski's bold artwork has left an indelible mark on the game's legacy, bringing to life the fantastical realms of Neverwinter and its iconic characters. The artist's journey into creating key art for Neverwinter began with a fortuitous email from Alec Obert, the associate art director for Gearbox Publishing in San Francisco. Rutkowski's familiarity with the world of Neverwinter and Dungeons & Dragons made him an ideal fit for the project. 

Reflecting on his initial involvement, Rutkowski tells me, "I immediately said yes because I was already familiar with Neverwinter's world and Dungeon & Dragons, and the very first assignment seemed interesting!"

Neverwinter; elf characters hide in a castle corridor

The key art for Neverwinter expansion Menzoberranzan (Image credit: Gearbox / Wizards of the Coast LLC)

Rutkowski began fleshing out ideas for Neverwinter by delving  into the rich tapestry of Dungeon & Dragons lore. He drew inspiration from revered fantasy artists such as Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Simon Bisley, Tyler Jacobson, and Jesper Ejsing. (Catch up on who are the modern masters of fantasy art in our must-read list.)

Rutkowski explains, "I was hugely inspired by other artworks from Dungeon & Dragons lore and many other fantasy titles […] I was always seeking inspiration in other artists". This fusion of influences, both classical and contemporary, contributed to the unique visual style that distinguishes Neverwinter's artwork.

When it comes to Rutkowski's creative process, he starts with rough compositional sketches to determine the best arrangement. These initial sketches are often black and white, serving as a foundation for the subsequent colour and lighting stages. Describing the demanding nature of this process, Rutkowski says, "To build interesting lighting, you have to think about colour as well, but with lighting, you are building the form and structure of your characters and creatures […] Once it's done, the rest of the process is more focused on the overall look". 

The whole creation process takes place in the thoughts I come up with in my head – all the decisions are there.

Greg Rutkowski

The artist uses Photoshop for his digital work but also paints traditionally in oils. Interestingly, at the start of his career Rutkowski says he was "really stunned by the possibilities of digital software" but over time he has learned to treat this as just another tool, "because I know that the whole creation process takes place in the thoughts I come up with in my head – all the decisions are there."

This meticulous attention to detail ensures that Rutkowski's artwork is not only visually captivating but also seamlessly integrates with Neverwinter's world and lore. But designing art for a game as expansive and established as Neverwinter poses its own set of challenges.

As we chat, Rutkowski highlights the importance of balance and maintaining harmony among various elements. He elaborates, "Keeping everything in balance is the most challenging part of creation […] remembering to make sure the light, colour, value, composition, importance of each character, and the landscape is usually the most demanding part".

Neverwinter; the dungeons and dragons art called Dragon Slayer

Greg Rutkowski's Dragon Slayer key art remains one of his personal favourites, and is still a hit with fans (Image credit: Greg Rutkowski)

Rutkowski has worked on Neverwinter since launch ten years ago, with his role evolving from key art painter to concept artist. I asked him if there's a memorable moment from the previous ten years that stands out. Rutkowski recalls one such moment, which involved the creation of the key art for the Northdark Reaches module. 

The arist recalls, "I stuck with the early stage for quite a while, trying to find a solution for a good balance […] In the end, I think the key art turned out to be great, and the Neverwinter team loved it!" These moments of triumph and collaboration have shaped Rutkowski's artistic journey; it's hard to think of Greg Rutkowski without conjuring images from Neverwinter.

Continuing to pursue these types of bigger art pieces is my plan for the future

Greg Rutkowski

Over the years, Rutkowski's artistic style has evolved and adapted. The Neverwinter project ignited his passion for larger-scale paintings that incorporate multiple characters, allowing him to tell more vivid and compelling stories.

Rutkowski shares how, "Continuing to pursue these types of bigger art pieces is my plan for the future – so I can tell stories in a much more vivid and convincing way". His commitment to pushing artistic boundaries ensures that his contributions to Neverwinter remain timeless, for me personally Rutkowski's art now straddles the same traditions of fantasy and fine art that made his art hero, Frank Frazetta, so important. (Read our Patrick J Jones interview for more inspiration.)

When asked about specific pieces of art that hold a special place in his heart, Rutkowski fondly recalls his very first key art for the Neverwinter Dragonslayer. The artwork served as a the start of something new and special for Rutkowski. He reminisces, "The Dragonslayer key art was an introduction into a whole new world, and it forced me to find my way in that special world – that I found exciting." By challenging Rutkowski to find his artistic voice, it really does appear first impressions truly matter.

Neverwinter; a dragon in a video game

The Neverwinter MMORPG set a new standard for free-to-play games when it released in 2013 (Image credit: Gearbox / Wizards of the Coast LLC)

Rutkowski's artistic contributions to Neverwinter have played a pivotal role in shaping the game's visual identity. The stunning landscapes, detailed characters, and epic encounters he brought to life through his art have become synonymous with the Neverwinter experience. 

His ability to capture the essence of Neverwinter's world and lore has left an indelible mark on players and artists alike. Rutkowski modestly remarks, "I hope I added a small touch of my style to the huge world of Neverwinter, and I hope I was able to pass the Neverwinter's essence through and inspire new people with the game and my art". 

By diving into the fantasy world that you're asked to create in your own way, you are able to truly understand the 'vibe' or style

Greg Rutkowski

Art, as Rutkowski eloquently describes, serves as a visual language that sculpts the content of a game. It conveys the story, invites players into immersive worlds, and leaves a lasting impression. "Key art should be able to catch some of the most important qualities of the game," he says, explaining how the art of Neverwinter has become an integral part of the game's identity, delighting players and fostering a deep emotional connection to the world. (Read our tutorial, 'how to compose and create dramatic key art' for more advice.)

For aspiring artists seeking to embark on similar projects within the gaming industry, Rutkowski offers valuable advice. He encourages artists to fully immerse themselves in the fantasy worlds they are tasked with creating, allowing their unique artistic voice to flourish. Rutkowski advises, "By diving into the fantasy world that you're asked to create in your own way, you are able to truly understand the 'vibe' or style you want to go for and imagine something that's interesting and unique".

For Rutkowski, this commitment to embracing your creative vision, coupled with a constant pursuit of artistic growth, paves the way for success in the industry. For more advice read feature, 'How to get a job as a video games artist' where recruiters from leading studios share their advice.

Neverwinter; a mechanical spider creature

The latest Menzoberranzan expansion shows Neverwinter is still growing, and has been optimised for Xbox Series X (Image credit: Gearbox / Wizards of the Coast LLC)

As I conclude our journey through Neverwinter's 10-year legacy, Rutkowski shares his invaluable insights as an artist. He emphasises the importance of adapting your approach to each painting, as each piece tells a unique story. The artist tells me, "Finding light, colour, and value solutions is a constant challenge and is worth pushing yourself to finding new ideas".

As we celebrate a decade of this beloved game, Greg Rutkowski's iconic key art stands as a testament to the power of art in capturing the essence of a virtual world. With stylus and brush in hand, Rutkowski has woven tales of heroism and wonder, forever intertwining his art with the enduring spirit of Neverwinter. Try the game for yourself, by visiting the Neverwinter website  or download for free on Xbox Series X and Series S.

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Ian Dean
Editor, Digital Arts & Design

Ian Dean is Editor, Digital Arts & Design at Creativebloq, and the former editor of many leading magazines. These titles included ImagineFX, 3D World and leading video game title Official PlayStation Magazine. In his early career he wrote for music and film magazines including Uncut and SFX. Ian launched Xbox magazine X360 and edited PlayStation World. For Creative Bloq, Ian combines his experiences to bring the latest news on AI, digital art and video game art and tech, and more to Creative Bloq, and in his spare time he doodles in Procreate, ArtRage, and Rebelle while finding time to play Xbox and PS5. He's also a keen Cricut user and laser cutter fan, and is currently crafting on Glowforge and xTools M1.