Bob Olley was the most artistic miniature sculptor during Citadel's golden age of the mid-1980's. I wouldn't say he was the best sculptor; that is a matter of taste. Nor was he the most popular (I've seen his sculptures described as "chubby" and "fungoid"). And he certainly wasn't the most prolific - he only created a handful of ranges, including Norse Dwarves, Skeletons, Space Pirates, and (my favourite) Black Orcs.
Black Orc by Iron Claw Miniatures, IC601 (sculpted by Bob Olley, 1988)
So why is Olley the most artistic? Oscar Wilde said "art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known". If you take this as a rough definition of art, then Olley was a true artist. Most Citadel minis reflect the world of Warhammer. Bob Olley's miniatures reveal something about Bob Olley. Something weird. He combined an idiosyncratic sculpting style with a fevered vision of the fantastic. The resulting body of work is totally different from that of his peers.Whether you like them or not, you know a Bob Olley sculpture the moment you see it.
Olley didn't work in the studio with the other Citadel sculptors, which may have insulated him from their influence. In any case, I think Olley's individual style is the reason why, starting in 1987, Olley's miniatures were produced by Citadel but released under Olley's own label, Iron Claw. His strangely proportioned and hyper-textured models didn't fit in with any other range. And indeed, I think this limited his popularity: Olley's miniatures stuck out from other Citadel miniatures like visitors from another dimension.
But popularity isn't everything. What I prize in a miniature is a sense of personality, combined with true imagination. Olley has both qualities by the spoonful. Heads and hands are the most expressive element to any miniature, and one of Olley's hallmarks is over-sizing these features. His huge faces attract the viewer's eye, and give him a broad canvass to turn each miniature into a character (often, a very funny character).
The other hallmark of Iron Claw miniatures is a deeply carved texture. This gives the minis a layered effect, with shaggy furs, warty skin and thick beards piled on top of each other. In this sense, Olley was a master at translating the defining artwork of John Blanche and Gary Chalk into lead.
In my view, Olley's artistic flare is emphasized by the fact that he didn't actually need to sculpt that way. He's perfectly capable of making miniatures that look like everyone else's miniatures when he wants to. There are dozens examples of "normal" looking miniatures in his body of work, although I own only one of them: the Demonic Lasher from Reaper Miniatures (2003).
This miniature is another example of Olley capturing the essence of a great fantasy illustrator -- in this case, the sketch of the demon prince Demogorgon from first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual (1977). It's a pretty odd concept for a miniature, but Olley's sculpt is no weirder than the original picture by David Sutherland III (aka DCS). All of which is to say, I love this mini, but it doesn't have the eccentric carving style of a true Olley.
Demogorgon, Prince of Demons
Next week, I'll feature a full set of Bob Olley's true originals: the Black Orcs he produced for Iron Claw in 1988.