Professionalism in Gaming: Art Direction

Greetings readers! This week, I’d like to take some time to talk to you about how to direct artwork and artists in the RPG industry. I first started working as an art director when I joined Fantasy Flight Games full-time in 2008 as the Senior RPG Developer for the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay line. Since then, I’ve done art direction for a number of additional projects, including Dust Warfare, the cancelled MMO Dark Millennium Online, Darksiders II, Shadowrun: Sprawl Gangers, and my (at the time of this writing) newest RPG project, Accursed. I’ve been very privileged to work with talented, professional artists, and I have several such artists as personal friends in many gaming groups I’ve been a part of.
I’d like to share here some of the things I’ve learned during my career with regards to art direction and managing artists—but first, some important caveats. First, the things I’m going to discuss here are in regards only to RPGs (and possibly miniature battle games books), not for any other type of game or use. Second, I don’t have all the answers, nor am I a professional artist in my own right. This is just sharing what I’ve learned in my own experience, so YMMV.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s dive in and talk about RPG art direction!

The Art Description

A very dynamic piece from Wayne Reynolds.

The first step is to identify what art pieces you need for your project. You’re going to want some kind of cover at a minimum, and I would go so far as to say that you need at least one piece of art for every four pages in your layout (that’s two spreads). If you’re publishing a setting, core book, or player’s guide that includes new player character options, my advice is those are highly important to illustrate as well. Bestiaries and NPC books have their own art needs, of course, as do other types of RPG products like adventures.

Once you’ve got your list of art you need (and ideally a budget of what you can actually afford), you need to write some art descriptions so you tell your artists what you want them to produce. And, IMHO, this is actually one of the trickiest parts.
The key, in my experience, is to provide the artist with clarity and balance that with freedom.
When I say “clarity,” I mean that you need to give the artist a solid idea of what you’re looking for him to draw. I’ve seen a lot of people write different art descriptions in my time, and here are some of the most common errors. First, when you’re imagining the image in your mind, remember that there’s only one point of view, one “camera,” and it cannot move. Don’t write an art description with phrases like “we then see the arrow sweeping across the battlefield,” because that only happens in actual videos.
Keep your descriptions short and to the point—don’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail. Lastly, make sure to provide as many references as you can—I like to hit Google image search and insert links (i.e., “The hilt of his sword should look like this reference (providing a link)”). The key here is to never assume the artist knows exactly what you mean without you having to explain it – make sure you’re as clear as possible on the parts of the image that are the most important and it will save you time going through revisions! 
Keep in mind the purpose of the piece: you don’t want the “camera” pulled very far back if the art piece is supposed to showcase a particular character rather than an event. This is also applicable to the size of the illustration in your book – small sized illustrations (for example, quarter-page) are not going to be well-suited to show a huge battle scene. When you’re writing descriptions for specific characters, make sure to note the iconic important bits (hair color, eye color, pointed ears, wings, etc.) so that you have consistency of that character’s look across all the illustrations (and illustrators!).
It is important, however, to make sure that your art description has a good balance for the artist’s creative freedom. What I mean by this is that few artists enjoy being placed in a straightjacket and allowed only to illustrate within very tight restrictions. Artists are artist because they enjoy being creative, after all! My suggestion is to leave some of the details open to the artist’s interpretation. My personal favorites are to give the artist free reign in the pose or expression of a character, or to tell him to “go wild” with the background theme elements. If you make sure to leave the artist some room to be creative with your art description, the artist will appreciate it, and your art piece will be much better in the long run. Ultimately, what you want to give the artist is an inspiration and a vision for the work, not a paint-by-numbers recipe.

Choosing an Artist

I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with companies like FFG with an established stable of artists, and through my work, I’ve gained connections with lots of talented illustrators within the industry. If you need to find new artists or haven’t made a lot of connections yet, my suggestions are these:

  • Use online portfolio sites such as Deviantart to identify certain artists (or to grab some references) you’d like to use on your project
  • Many conventions also have an “artist alley” that you can check out to see several portfolios and different styles – and usually these artists are also looking for work!

When you pick an artist for your work, try and match the artist’s style to the mood and tone of the work you need for your project. For example, if the artist’s portfolio is filled with pictures of superheroes, he might not be the best choice for gothic fantasty, but he’d be an excellent choice for a book about supervillains!
Next, when you contact the artist, check on his availability—some artists are quite in demand and only have small windows that they can do work for your project. Don’t count on getting more than 3-5 pieces from any individual artist. If you need 8 pieces all done by the same artist, you really need to make sure he’s got the time to commit to that.

Review Steps

In any assignment with an artist, you want to build in review steps so you and the artist can communicate about how the work is coming along. It can be heartbreaking on both sides to get to the final stage of an art piece only to find out it can’t be used in the project!
My advice is to schedule two review steps: the first is the initial pencil sketch of the art piece and the second is the colored final. Only when both of these steps have been approved does the artist send in the hi-res final art and receives payment.
The pencil sketch is the most important step with regards to feedback. The art director should carefully scrutinize the pencil sketch and give clear feedback on what, if anything, needs to change.
(As a side note here, my favorite artists that I work with are the ones who actually have a third review step, sending in some thumbnail sketches of the subject in different poses before committing to the fully-detailed sketch, allowing you to find a pose and/or composition you both really like!)
A fantastic example of a pencil sketch next to a color final, by Nikolaus Ingeneri

Keep in mind that the final color image (if you are using color image, final black and white if not) is the absolute last time you can give feedback, and you should strive very hard to keep your revisions very small at this stage. The artist has put a ton of time and effort into that final work, so asking him to completely change the pose, subject, or composition is a huge pain! Ideally, any necessary changes should be very small (i.e., “Please change the gun in his holster to look like the reference I sent you.”).

Revisions and Feedback

Clear feedback should involve any changes to details, the character’s pose, proportions, etc. “The head needs to be about 10% smaller,” is good feedback. “Make it like this, but better,” is not.
Try not to have more than three revisions of the artwork (meaning three revisions TOTAL). Having to do the same art piece over and over is a surefire way to kill an artist’s passion for the work! Your goal as the art director should be to absolutely minimize the number of times the artist has to revise.
If you’ve hit three revisions with an artist on any individual art piece and it still isn’t acceptable, my advice would be that it is better at this point to switch the art assignment with another piece rather than push the artist for “just one more pass.” If you end up with a great artist that no longer wants to do business with you because of too many revisions, that’s a major blow to your project—you’ll have to start all over again with a new artist from scratch.

Growing Artists

Some of the amazing work of Matt Bradbury.

Artists are like any other professional; they improve with practice. If you are clear with your expectations up front and deal professionally with your artists, you’ll find that, most often, they will deal professionally with you in return. Keep an eye out for artists who respond quickly and professionally to your feedback, or artists that go an extra mile (such as the additional sketches for poses I mentioned above). One artist I worked with at FFG was not only very professional, he was always very cheerful and quick with his revisions. Even when he needed to completely re-do an image, he said things like “Oh, I’ll have that for you tomorrow, no problem!” It did not take long for us to move that artist up from doing interior artwork to chapter frontispieces, and from there to cover art.

Typically, the most valuable artwork on your project is going to be the cover art, followed by any major interior work (chapter frontispieces, character portraits for the PC options, etc.). Larger pieces are more expensive than smaller ones, and color is more expensive than black and white. My advice to anyone doing art direction for the first time is to keep track of your artists over time, and reward the artists who turn in quality work on time with bigger and better assignments.

In Conclusion

Art Direction can be a fun role when working on a project, but it can also be exhausting and time-consuming to get all those details right. I hope that by reading this you may discover that writing art descriptions is a lot more involved than it first sounds! Similarly, I hope that if there are any professional RPG artists and art directors out there who read this, please chime in in the comments section below and let me know what you think of my advice here. I’d love to hear from you.

2 responses to “Professionalism in Gaming: Art Direction

  1. I know Mr. Watson doesn’t need a cred booster, but, as one of the artists he has directed, I was always pleased to see his name at the top of an art solicitation. That’s not true for many other art directors! Great post.

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