Some things in life go unnoticed unless they’re awful. That’s usually the case with board game illustration. While boxes prominently display the designer’s name, often the artist is only listed in the rule book’s credits. Sure, great illustrations can be noticed, but usually they work on a more subconscious level – making sales, attracting players, and immersing them in the game’s setting or theme. More than just aesthetics, though, board game art is also a science. It must be functional and intuitive. Distracting artwork can be just as damaging as bad artwork. It requires a delicate balance. And even when praised, artists rarely receive enough credit. The Artist’s Valley series hopes to shed insight on the world of tabletop illustration and shine light on those who “bring a game to life.”
Illustrator Bill Bricker agreed to “sit down” (indeed, he seems eternally confined to his chair) with iSlaytheDragon to discuss his work and career and the board gaming hobby. While currently working exclusively in the industry, it wasn’t always so. Bill honed his natural skills in the days before computers were prolific in the field through hard work and a professional ethos learned in “real world” jobs. He brings yet another unique story to our Artist’s Valley series, this one about persistence, flexibility and embracing the board game community over the years. And years. And years.
First off, Bill, tell us just a little about you.
Well, for starters I’m pretty old! My first professional work was in 1985, back when we used these things called pencils, an amazing piece of technology for the day. You could draw with one end and if things didn’t go quite the way you wanted, the other end would (hold onto your seat) make it go away!
I live in Ohio, the hotbed for budding old artists, in a little box with my beautiful wife of 28 years. They let me go outside once a day to see the sun and the rest of my time is spent making pretty pictures in a smaller box within our box. I visit two conventions a year and you can typically pick me out amongst all the other artists because I’m the old guy drooling on himself.
How did your career as an artist develop?
I started working in high school, a sort of apprenticeship for an artist who also taught at the school. I learned to do everything traditionally. Computers hadn’t taken over yet. So hand drawn lettering, hand painted signs, billboards, etc. You ever see those U-haul trucks with pictures on the side? One of my first real jobs was designing some of those.
My first work for the gaming industry was probably in the early 90’s. There were lots of small publications back in the day and I would do interior spots for guys like White Wolf & Silver Griffin. Even a few things for TSR back when it was TSR.
I left the industry completely in 1995 when I closed my original studio, got a haircut and got a real job. For the next fifteen years I worked several completely unrelated jobs that have truly helped develop my business sense and sales technique. As a young artist I had no concept of sales or how to handle the actual business side. Those years in other industries were critical in developing the ability to work for myself. My advice to every young artist that wants to freelance is, “Learn your numbers kid!”
Since getting back into it, do you have other non-gaming projects or work?
Currently I rarely work outside of the gaming industry. That bastard at Stronghold Games has me chained to a chair! Seriously, someone please let me out of my chair!
Honestly though, I don’t have time to do much more than the games. When I was younger I did a lot of work for private collectors. I’ve sold thousands of pieces that way. I painted billboards, wall murals, windows, and even Harley’s…pretty much anything that wasn’t red hot to the touch! I was also on the ground floor of Onscreen Advertising in movie theaters. Remember those horrible slides they used to show before the film started? Man I sure did a lot of those. I did a little bit of work for the Sci-Fi channel in its original iteration, as well.
So in that time, has your reclined imprisonment at least promoted to a leather La-Z-Boy? I mean experience has got to count for something, right?
The powers that be replaced my previously acceptable crate with a chair a few years ago. At this rate I should have a La-Z-boy in another decade!
Sounds like you haven’t gone the formal training route, but is there a particular artist’s work or style that you’ve always admired or has been influential?
I wish I could say it was the Masters who inspired me. Or that my great love for impressionism lead me down this path. But, it just ain’t so. And I’m not smart enough to pull off a big, inspired story that would make me look like a serious artist!
I started drawing because my father would doodle little things, and he had been a pretty talented amateur artist. I started by imitating him, and then he introduced me to Prince Valiant and Hal Foster. I copied a lot of Hal Foster stuff when I was a kid. I mean, come on, what little boy didn’t love Tarzan?!
My earliest inspirations were comic book artists. Bernie Wrightson and John Buscema were favorites. But by far the biggest artistic influence has been Frank Frazetta! I know the kids don’t dig him like some of the new guys, but trust me folks, we’re all doing this because Frank Frazetta made it possible. I think Bernie Wrightson said it best when he said, “I could do it because Frazetta showed me how.” He is the father of modern fantasy art, and he’s the reason I wanted to read my first Conan novel, which lead me here all these years later!
How did you first get connected for those early assignments with the folks at White Wolf, Silver Griffin and TSR?
My first assignments came via solicitation…in the mail! Ha! I didn’t know anyone back then, and we didn’t have all of these incredible conventions to meet and greet. I would send out solicitations every month to the same companies and after a couple of years some of them gave up and handed me some work. It’s not a very sexy story, I know, but it’s how we did it back then.
And when did you first do any type of artwork for a board game and how did that transition develop?
I did my first board game only four years ago, Dungeon Heroes for Michael at Gamelyn. Great little game, by the way! The approach was much as I had used previously, except email this time. When I left my “real job” five years ago I began soliciting companies via email every month. At the time Michael was working with his buddy Patrick at Crash Games (word Patrick!) and they liked my stuff enough to give me a chance.
It’s important to note here, because someone trying to break into the business might read this and think all they need to do is barrage companies with emails. All the experience from those other jobs helped turn me into a professional. I was a very talented artist when I was young, probably better than I am now in many ways. But I didn’t understand how to be professional so I failed. I haven’t missed a deadline in decades. I don’t need to be micro-managed. I’m never insulted by a client asking me to change my work and I appreciate everything I’ve earned. If that description doesn’t sound like you, check yourself at the door. Being a great artist might get you noticed, but without those other qualities you won’t last long.
I appreciate that insight! That’s the kind of stuff I hope to highlight with this series. Plus we get to see that getting old comes wisdom, as well as drooling! Since that start, how many board games have you done artwork for?
I’m not completely certain to be honest. I don’t distinguish between RPG’s or card games and board games. They mostly work the same from my standpoint. If you include everything I’ve probably worked on more than 50 in the last four years.
That is a sizable portfolio! What types of work do you do on them? Just illustrations? More?
I occasionally do graphic work, but it’s not something I derive a lot of enjoyment from. These days I limit most of my graphic stuff to one client who is a very close friend, Stronghold Games. I was trained so many years ago that my sense of style is different than modern graphic artists/designers, and I’m really quite dated. So it’s more of a struggle for me than it is fun. Let’s face it, if you’re not doing this for fun you’re in it for the wrong reasons.
Mental note, I should remove that [graphic design]link from my website!
Among those projects, do you have a project that was a personal favorite?
That’s a tough one to answer. Projects are special for different reasons, and at this stage in my life I’m lucky to be a part of any of them. I really enjoyed my experiences with Mike Fitzgerald (Diamonds & Baseball Highlights 2045) because Mike is one of the finest people I’ve ever met. And doing Space Sheep for Stephen at Stronghold Games was hilarious to work on.
I guess I don’t have a favorite. Some are prettier than others, some were easier, some were more challenging, but all of them are like my kids. I love them all equally and it brings me great joy to see people playing them!
Space Sheep sounds particularly intriguing since it’s such a humorous and odd theme. Can you sort of walk us briefly through the process of imagining that idea from inception and then bringing it to life?
Space Sheep was interesting for a lot of reasons, most of which wouldn’t be fair to mention here! There isn’t actually that much to divulge about the theme on Space Sheep. The title and tagline (Ewes the Force) had been established before I came on board, so it was really a matter of just trying to parody the universe we were poking fun at. The idea to directly parody the original movie poster on the box was less inspiration and truly something I had done many times before. I often practice by painting versions of my favorite art, sometimes those pieces become completely new interpretations and a few have been used in the gaming industry. Mostly they just sit around hidden in my files. So I didn’t really think about the cover much at all. I knew exactly what I wanted to do when it came time to paint it. It didn’t take much to convince Stephen at Stronghold Games to let me do it, he thought it was hilarious.
How does illustrating for tabletop games differ from other projects you used to do? I mean board games don’t get as much exposure as those U-Haul trucks. By the way, I once saw a Kansas-themed U-Haul with what oddly appeared to be mountains in the background. You didn’t do that one did you?
I wouldn’t say illustrating games is different so far as the work goes. But, this industry is very different than any other I’ve been a part of. It’s such a close knit community and there are so many truly fine people who populate it that I can’t really compare it to anything else I’ve done. I’m constantly working with friends or people who will become friends, and we’re making things that bring joy to other people. Even when the work is hard or the hours long, I’m still left with a good feeling at the end of the day. I really love it.
I didn’t do the Kansas U-Haul, but I wish I did. How did that make it past the QC check?! My designs for U-Haul were Einstein and a family having a picnic. By the way, if you see one of those designs on a truck, get out of the way! They’re from 1985 and that truck can’t possibly be in good repair at this point!
Well, I guess they could have been trees, though that’s still stretching it for Kansas. Speaking of QC, when doing the artwork for a board game, do you take any direction or artistic suggestions – maybe even some requirements – from the game’s designer/publisher? How much of a “free license” do you have?
It really depends on the project. Some projects I’m told exactly what to do, even down to the finest details. Other projects are very much open to my interpretation. I recently finished a project for Stronghold Games by Carl Chudyk called Bear Valley where I really had a lot of freedom and it was lots of fun. But mostly I’m told what to do and that’s for the best. I’m very prolific and my visual library sometimes runs low, so it’s very helpful to be given instruction.
My job is to bring someone’s concept (IP) to life in a way that meets or exceeds their vision. I’m not creating MY world, I’m creating a world for someone else, and their input is crucial. I’m willing to go to almost any length to make that happen, including taking direction at every turn, redoing something multiple times and even changing up my artistic style.
Are there any other game illustrators you know of whose work you particularly enjoy/admire?
Are these questions deliberately rigged to iterate how old I am? Should I start listing off Avalon Hill guys here?!
Ha, well I didn’t mean to make it so obvious, but I had heard that you drew the original Monopoly guy. Any truth to that rumor?
ROFL!! I would almost take credit for that just to see if you knew who originally created the Monopoly art. But, no I didn’t do Monopoly. I drew chess!
This field is FILLED with talented artists whom I admire. How can I start naming folks knowing that I’ll leave someone out? Harrumph! Well, let me take a different approach here. I love so much of the art that’s being produced now that I cannot narrow the field down that way. So let me narrow it down by artists who I believe are amazing professionals and perhaps don’t receive enough recognition. Jacob Walker is a great guy doing beautiful work in traditional medium, which I really admire. I’m not sure how he keeps up with his workload using that pencil thingy! Nicholas Kay does beautiful work and really extends himself to the community to help us all be better. Nick has a great YouTube channel if you’re learning how to use that expensive Cintiq.
We’re really in a Golden Age for board games. There have never been so many games produced with so many amazing artists. When you work behind the scenes and understand how very few monetary rewards exist for the hard working artists, designers, graphic artists and publishers behind these amazing games, it’s staggering. This is a community full of passion for the hobby, and that passion breeds the finest results!
There are definitely countless new games released every year. Do you think that’s good or bad for illustration work in the hobby? More games could mean opportunities for more aspiring artists? But does it also dilute the talent pool involved in everything as a whole?
Oh, I definitely think it’s a good thing. The more games, the more opportunity, the more likely the next great artist will have a chance to participate. I think overall modern game art is incredibly well done and there are lots of examples that are superior to the game art of my youth. Not to say there weren’t talented artists back then. Of course there were, and some of those folks set the standard for us today. But in every instance there’s a “good, better, and best”. I see a lot more examples of “the best” in modern game art.
From your experience are the majority of artists and illustrators in the board gaming industry doing it full time? Or part-time while not working in other careers? Or simply as other projects among many of their artistic work?
I think we see a lot of “drive-by” artists. They dip their toe in the water because they want that experience and it looks like fun. Unfortunately, you have to be incredibly prolific to make a living in this industry as a freelancer. Which means that you must be very disciplined and put in a lot of long hours for not much money. That may be appealing long term to a few us, but it’s not really an option for most people. So I see a lot of artists doing a few projects then moving on to more lucrative options and just doing the games between other things. I only know a handful of freelancers that focus exclusively on games, and all of us have holes in our shoes and drive old cars!
You mentioned enjoying Dungeon Heroes, does that mean you are a “gamer” yourself? If so, what are some of your favorites?
Alas, I cannot describe myself as a gamer. I used to, but then I met REAL gamers! My work schedule is pretty crazy these days, leaving very little time to game. I was an avid role player when I was young, and my family played a lot of Avalon Hill stuff. Yeah, I’m old, get over it!
When my friends and I play now it’s not like the eight hour sessions we used to have. We just don’t have time for that. Luckily so many modern games play much faster than the games of old. My personal favorite is Space Cadets: Away Missions! I love the atmosphere and it’s really a challenge. Lemmings Mafia is a fun drinking game. Well, I don’t think it was designed that way, but with a little creativity you can figure it out. Dark Moon is totally awesome, but no one will play it with me because I’m ALWAYS the infected person and it ruins the concept! Everyone just starts out knowing I’m the bad guy and the hidden traitor element becomes the “whip-up-on-Bill” element!
By the way, and I know you didn’t ask, but there is an entire classification of games that I cannot stomach. Any game that requires me to draw something is absolutely the worst!!! You might perceive that I have some sort of advantage there, but trust me when I say, I DO NOT! Those games are rigged or something and I’ve never done anything but embarrass myself when I play one.
So no Pictionary then, eh?
Well, if good beer is involved I’m pretty happy to play whatever. But just hope you don’t end up on my team!
Well, when life has settled down and you’re in the old folks home in five years, what game do you think will be ideal to play with all of your retired artist friends?
I hope I retire with some new set of friends that own yachts and beach houses! And we’ll probably be playing something that involves me losing, but I won’t mind because I’ll be on a yacht anchored behind their beach house!
But before that day comes, is there a certain setting or subject that you haven’t illustrated before in gaming that you really would like to do?
Oh, a wish list! Tarzan! I don’t know how a Tarzan game would work, but I’m in! In fact anything from Burroughs would be a dream to work on: John Carter of Mars, Pelicudar, The Monster Men, Carson of Venus. All that sounds like fun!
Dinosaurs fighting Cowboys! I really really want to do that and might just start doing some, anyhow! Classic monsters! Wolfman and Frankenstein!
A Football game. I love me some football!
Superheroes! That would be tons of fun, too! I like the gritty heroes, but wouldn’t mind some Golden Age stuff either.
There’s lots more I could list, but I should probably stop carrying on. Every subject is interesting to me because I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be doing what I do with people I enjoy!
Finally, we all imagine that artists have a special place they go to for inspiration. When you can pick the locks on your chair, where is that place for you?
That would be really cool and mysterious, wouldn’t it! No, I’m afraid I don’t have a place I go for inspiration. My inspiration is the next project. That gets me hot, baby! However, because I work very long hours in season, I often find that my visual library gets exhausted. In my downtime I’m constantly consuming ideas: movies, books, music, trying new restaurants, taking tons and tons of photos and generally trying to place myself into situations that are unfamiliar. All of us illustrators rely on our life experience to create images. I can always sit down and paint another dragon or zombie, but it’s important that I don’t constantly repeat the same imagery again and again. In order to fill my visual library with new ideas I use a lot of my downtime to expose myself to things I’m unfamiliar with. I find that those fresh life experiences and new information inspire me to do things slightly different, which hopefully helps keep my concepts fresh!
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Bill for spending some time with us and providing some insight into board game illustration. Personally we wish him well, hoping this old dog keeps learning all kinds of new tricks! If you’d like to get to know him a little bit more, or look through his diverse work, please visit the links below:
Art blog/Website: www.kavoc.com
Board Game Geek Page: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgameartist/68048/william-bricker
He probably also has an old soup can hooked up to one end of a string. 😉
Finally, Bill and eight other creators have produced an anthology of short tales of terror, Fight the Monster – from Vikings fighting the mysterious on a “deserted” island to Christmas surviving the zombie apocalypse. All proceeds from this work go completely towards fighting a real monster, multiple sclerosis. If you’re interested in this unique project and helping support a worth cause, you can check out the following links: