Hiring an artist for your boardgame (I)

Witch being summoned by cult of Shadow Wing

Introduction


Congratulations, you’ve designed your boardgame!

If you’re not pitching it to a publisher, you still have a long and winding road ahead, due to a fact that many indie designers neglect: a great game does not make a great product.

You will probably face many challenges that don’t fall into your skill set, and one of them is of paramount importance: translating your ideas and imagination into images through an artist (aka “put good art into the game”).

This is Part One of a series of articles I intend to write about this difficult (but fun) journey. I hope my tips help indie designers and publishers out there, because they are the result of reading a lot about the subject, interviewing many artists, and, above all, personal experience.

Today, we’ll talk about…

I – HIRING AN ARTIST

It all starts with this. It may seem like a simple task, but it is not. Hiring the wrong person will generate frustration for both parties and disrupt the project’s progress, so be careful about that.

Premise: is ART important?

Even those with no experience on the subject intuitively know IT IS, but those WITH experience go even further to say that ART IS KING.

With any other product, good artwork suggests quality and draws the attention of potential consumers. Good form indicates good substance.

Now, if you plan on submitting your project to crowdfunding websites (like Kickstarter or Indiegogo), multiply that importance tenfold, because most of your backers won’t have the privilege of playing the game or touching the box ahead of time.

This means you will be counting solely on your ability to convey a message, and, for that, the old adage is still true:

A picture is worth a thousand words.

With that premise carved in our minds, let’s take a look at the TOP 3 Actions when hiring an artist, and their respective tips:


1) Browse many portfolios

You certainly have a sense of the images you would like in your game, based on other works. Identify the artists whose works you liked the most and carefully browse their portfolio.


Sources

Sites like ArtStation and Pinterest allow you to identify similar works and further expand your search. Deviantart can also be a good way to meet new and even amateur artists, if you’re short on budget.

Social media also allows you to find many artists-for-hire (e.g. subreddits or Facebook groups), but these websites are not designed to take a wide, clean, easy look at many artworks at a time, so you might be wasting a lot of time there.

Pinterest
Don’t rush.

You cannot be in a hurry, otherwise you will ruin the project. Find potential artists with traits compatible with the one you want and list at least five. Always be prepared for prices inconsistent with your budget. Having at least 5 options will greatly reduce the anxiety generated by refusal or unavailability of a given artist.

If you’re still designing your game and the project has not yet reached the “artwork stage”, browse the websites above on your spare time. Reach out to artists and let them know you appreciate their work. That might decrease your anxiety levels when the time comes to hire someone.

Evaluating portfolios

Understand that a single piece of art does not speak for the entirety of an artist’s portfolio, as different works might have demanded different artistic approaches from him/her.

The artist can also be experimenting, so don’t discard an artist just because you saw something you disliked. On the contrary: diversity in his/her portfolio could mean the artist has a wide skillset and will be able to better adjust and adapt to your project’s demands.

Now, besides the obvious (that is, identifying artists with a compatible style and theme), what should you take a careful look at?

 

Realistic warrior with some special effects (Arena: the Contest) by Guilherme Batista (see SHAPES, below). Click to open a large, high-definition picture.

Points to notice in portfolio images (even when the association to your project is not so direct):


A) SHAPES: Are the shapes realistic or cartoonish / stylized? Are the forms proportionate or exaggerated?

 

Beautifully stylized Fairy Godmother (The Grimm Forest) by Mr. Cuddington. Courtesy of Druid City Games.

Most artists are at some point between extremes (like 40% cartoonish, 45% exaggerated). You should identify those that are comfortable with working at a point close to the one you want to imprint.

Great stylized warrior (The Stonebound Saga) by Rudy Siswanto. Courtesy of Skykingdom Games.

 

B) Colors: Do you see limited palettes (tending to classic paintings) or very colorful artworks? Is the color’s intensity exaggerated or contained? 

Perfect example of art with a limited palette. Scythe Cover by Jakub Rozalski. Courtesy of Stonemaier Games.

Saturation and color balance can give a realistic feel to the work.

High saturation on a Magic: the Gathering art. Return to Ravnica, by John Avon

 

C) Composition: do you see concept images (showing whole, static characters) or dynamic illustrations (with distortions and frames that create movement)?

 

“The Witcher” concept character art (static, but with variations in design) – By Marek Madej.

 

Concept art focus entirely on the character’s design, while dynamic illustrations try to capture the moment of a particular scene.

 

Distortions to create sense of movement. Vampire x Werewolf (Arena: the Contest) by Guilherme Batista.

 

D) Elements of design: Does the character design approach the classics? Or is it very different? What is the intensity of the special effects?

 

Classical witch painting (The Magic Circle, by John Willian Waterhouse). Observe not only the style of the painting, but the presence of elements like crows, skulls, and a cauldron.

The above aspects are universal: the evaluated artworks don’t need to belong to your game’s theme or universe. It can all be discussed with the artist, who may have followed specific briefings on the evaluated pieces. Nevertheless, these are interesting points to notice in order to sort out pieces.

Modern drawing of a witch that approaches the Classics. By Kilart.

The more the items above approach your desired style, the greater the chances of success in hiring an artist.

Arena: the Contest's witch
Modern design of a witch (partial image) from Evil Power Card (Arena: the Contest), by Guilherme Batista. Observe that this deviates a lot from the standard.

Controversial themes and enthusiasm

You should also pay attention to secondary aspects: Violence, religious and war symbols, nudity and sex should be openly discussed beforehand with the artist, for you to get a feel if he/she is comfortable with such elements.

For example, a religious artist may be uncomfortable drawing pictures of violence and bloodbaths for horror games.

Most artists are willing to draw anything that is not too extreme, but a decrease in enthusiasm may follow. In that regard, it is helpful to contact artists that seem to love what you want them to do.

And remember: your art must follow your game’s Parental Guidance. You can’t make a “family game” with NSFW artwork.

Amulet of Will medallion artifact
Artwork containing some high-saturation parts. Amulet of Will (Arena: the Contest), by James Colmer (see Colors, above).

2) Be willing to pay a fair price.


A lot of people start their series of mistakes here. Successful bargaining feels nice, as if we had won the “game of negotiations”.

However, you are not buying a pen, or a car. If you bargain for those at a store, it makes no difference to the acquired product. But, rest assured, it makes all the difference in the world for hired staff.

There must be a clear reason for someone to work below market value, the most common being inexperience, for artists that are recent to the freelancer market. There’s also a chance some artists will be willing to bet on your product, getting compensation with the fame that comes from working for a wide audience, or sometimes through a success fee (earning a percentage over sales).

Perhaps for lack of other options, the artist subjects to your reduced payment, but we’re talking about an unstable picture in which the person feels devalued and exploited. You want your staff to feel they’re awesome, right? It heavily influences the quality of their work, even if at a subconscious level.

Some people understand that, and, instead of bargaining over the artist, they undermine the value of the work they want done. Artists don’t appreciate hearing “It’s just a quick drawing”. Many had to study hard to conquer the ability to make “quick drawings”.

Garion the Rogue holding a rapier
Slight distortion to create perspective and dynamics. Garion the Rogue (Arena: the Comtest) by Guilherme Batista (See Composition, above).

 

Forget about demanding quality or deadlines to a cheap worker. How dare you pick up minor details and speed up your artist, when he’s doing you a favor?

Imagine a distant relative is visiting your house for a week and goes to the kitchen to grab a glass of water for himself, while you lie in your couch. “Hey, do you mind bringing a glass for me as well?” (ok) “Be sure to put 3 ice cubes and fill three-quarters of the medium-sized glass” (what?) “And go FAST. What are you waiting for? You have 30 seconds”.

Are you that kind of person? I guess not…

You won’t be able to demand high quality and tight deadlines to underpaid freelancers, and that will make your life infinitely difficult. It will take away your power to direct the art. The final result can be severely compromised.

Therefore, when the artist tells you his price, do what you can to really pay what you think is fair. If you need to lower it a bit, be reasonable in your counter proposal, knowing that you can jeopardize all the work because of this economy.

Side note: avoid “help mode” like the plague! Help mode is when you “hire” a friend you simply won’t pay, or pay symbolic values. The artist’s bills won’t stop coming, so the project will be last in his/her line of priorities, and you definitely won’t be able to adjust and tweak the possibly amateurish work to make it the way you want.

If you’re considering “help mode”, consider pitching your game to a publisher instead.


3) Test the artwork

 

It is well worth doing one or more tests before closing an entire artistic package, specially if the artist’s portfolio is distant from the style you desire. I recommend 1 to 3 pieces to align expectations with the artist, before sealing the deal.

Arena of Fate Thumbnail
Arena of Fate’s Thumbnail, by Guilherme Batista

In my personal experience, I was very lucky with my lead artist, Guilherme Batista. He imprinted on the arts the exact vision I had for Arena: the Contest, while teaching me a lot about art, which ultimately improved my briefings and vision.

Two other artists worthy of mention are James Colmer and Mario Wibisono. They made great pieces of art for the project.

—————


A good artist can work with a wide range of possibilities, and the way you can bring your artist’s work to the desired style is through good
briefings.


That will be the subject of Part Two:
Briefings.

How do you envision memorable characters and convey them well to your artist?

Continue to Part 2 – Briefings (coming soon) >>

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