Last Updated on September 2, 2021
Warhammer 40K is an inspiration-rich environment for artists. It depicts wars on planetary scales, superhumans, xenos, traitors, dark gods, and boasts more books, stories, history, and fluff than you could poke a stick at. For me, Warhammer 40,000 is where my love of gritty sci-fi started, and the imagery that went with the rule books, novels, and issues of White Dwarf was a big part of what drove that new obsession in an 11 year old me. I reached out to some of the brilliant minds I’ve been fortunate enough to work with or interview through GdM to ask for their favourite 40K art pieces and why.
Dark Angels by Jim Burns
Andy Hall (Writer for Total War: Warhammer) There is such a trove of 40K artwork that picking a defining piece is no easy task. My first thoughts were towards some of John Blanche’s seminal illustrations, maybe the Golden Thrown or the Eternity Gate from the second edition… but in the end I’ve chosen Jim Burn’s Dark Angels. This single piece of art was a defining part of my childhood. The almost photorealistic look of the Space Marines brought the 41st millennium to life to my young eyes. The piece was published as the cover for the first ‘Epic scale’ Space Marine, but there’s a few other interesting titbits tied to the art. It may or may not have used Al Pacino in Scarface as a reference for the un-helmeted Sergeant. Even more interestingly, originally, the Dark Angel chapter was actually intended to have black power armour, but in this picture (whether due to the artist or colour processing at the time, I can’t remember!) came out as a very dark green. Thus a 40K legend was born, lending the art even more prominence!
Helbrecht Triumphant by Mark Gibbons
Graham McNeill (Black Library author) I’m a firm believer that when art and words work together, you get the best results, and that has never been more borne out than when I worked with Mark Gibbons on Codex: Black Templars. Mark produced so many amazing pieces of concept art for this project that it was tough to choose which to fully develop, but one image that was a given was High Marshal Helbrecht, the leader of the Black Templars. Mark and I talked about Helbrecht’s back-story and how his service on Armageddon would be a perfect backdrop for the piece. Of all the Space Marine leaders, Helbrecht most encapsulates what it means to be a heroic, yet zealous Space Marine; and Mark’s piece really captures his power, his contempt for the foe, and the awe in which he is held. Helbrecht stands in the midst of a bloody battlefield, a beacon of hope in a place of carnage, a stalwart defender of the Emperor’s grand dream – even in the face of innumerable foes. Mark’s black and white work has always evoked the grim darkness of the 41st millennium brilliantly, and this piece entirely captures the gothic ruin of the Imperium, the looming threat of it permanently being two minutes to midnight, but still offers the hope that humanity might yet prevail.
Gav Thorpe (Games Workshop games designer and Black Library author)
(Our apologies to the artist – Based on the discussion on Gav Thorpe’s Facebook Page, we believe it to be Steve Tappin). I don’t really do ‘favourites’ or all-time top 5s or that sort of thing because it varies with my mood, so for this particular choice I have picked a piece of art that triggers something each time I look at it. There are two things about this eldar piece from the first edition of Warhammer 40,000, Rogue Trader. The first is the sense of space. So much of the gothic nature of 40K is about claustrophobia, and lots of the original art is exceptionally dense with detail. This piece is very different, a world far removed from our own. Secondly is the reminder that 40K is most definitely space fantasy, not science fiction. When I see this earliest incarnation of the eldar I remember that, despite whatever developments have been made in imagery and backgorund, they are still elves in space. It’s the wings mainly, but also the otherworldly glow of their lift pack that says star-faeries.
Covens by Leonid Kozienko
Shawn King (Graphic Designer Vault Books and Ragnarok Publications)
Choosing a favorite piece of 40k art is as daunting a task as taking on a horde of orks. There are countless options of beautifully grotesque pieces swarming around me which I would love to grip firmly in my gauntleted hands but, just as I hone in on one target another barrels into me, and another, and another, until I’m laying defeated on the broken soil, bloodshot eyes staring aimlessly, seeking for an answer as to how this much awesomeness could exist in one place… So, you can kind of see my dilemma when Adrian asked me to write a few words about my favourite piece of 40k art. Instead of wracking my brain trying to select an overall favourite piece I’ve decided to go with my favourite piece in this moment, and it’s one of those that sneaked past my targeting system and blindsided me, leaving me dazed for days. The piece is from Leonid Kozienko and I can’t stop looking at it. The palette speaks to my neutral-color-loving soul – that’s what first drew me in. Once it had my attention I noticed the cleanliness – that might sound like an odd word when dealing with this grimdark universe, but I find Leonid’s style to be very precise and it lends a realistic feel to this scene which really captures the gritty and dangerous atmosphere of 40k. The attention to detail here is wonderful. The little things like belts, straps, buckles, the structure of those gnarly helmets and vambrace, the transitions from mutations to skin, the way in which the central figure holds its blood-spattered sword, the smoking bullet streaming by the back figure’s head (or through it…). There’s also a sense of horror here that I really enjoy – horror at how these abominations came to be, and horror at the fact their onslaught looks undeterred by the Imperial Guard’s relentless efforts (yeah, those guys are nothing but mangled body parts now…). I could keep going but Adrian’s giving me the ‘wrap it up’ signal so that’s it … this time.
Last Stand Art by Kev Walker
Adrian Collins (Editor in Chief Grimdark Magazine) Ever since I saw Last Stand by Kev Walker on the cover of White Dwarf I was in love with this piece. It encapsulated everything I, as a Space Marine fan, saw in my mind’s eye. Insane heroism against the worst of odds, death, destruction on a planetary scale, brutality, resilience, brotherhood and regality. This image took me from a dabbler in to a full-blown fan.
More Warhammer 40K inspiration
If you want more inspiration, then I think you need to start reading. There is so much out there to sink your teeth into! Check out ten books to get you started here.